A state appeals court panel appeared to empathize Wednesday with Criminal District Court Clerk Arthur Morrell’s mounting concern about his office’s finances.
Morrell claims his office has been hamstrung by a city-imposed hiring freeze. He says Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has broken state law by refusing to let him fill some two dozen vacancies.
But even as Morrell sounded alarms this week about a severe staffing shortage, warning that his office will no longer be able to process overnight bail bonds, a panel of 4th Circuit Court of Appeal judges made no promises Wednesday that their ruling would bring an end to the long-running legal battle. Indeed, the overarching question of how much the city must pay the Clerk’s Office under state law could be left for another day — or a higher court.
The current litigation, nearly two years old, focuses largely upon a small percentage of Morrell’s budget — $141,600.50 — that city officials withheld in 2012 in the face of a $13.1 million citywide budgetary shortfall. At the heart of the dispute, however, is whether state law requires the city to foot the bill for all of the Clerk’s Office’s expenses or just its salaries.
City Attorney Sharonda Williams told the panel that Morrell’s 2012 lawsuit is moot because the city, in the end, provided the office with its full budget that fiscal year and even exceeded its funding obligations.
Morrell denies that claim and says the city owes his office a total of $1.2 million. He’s seeking a court order requiring the city to give him the money to fill his vacant positions.
The appeal stemmed from a December ruling by Civil District Court Judge Sidney Cates IV, who ordered the city to “fully fund” the expenses and salaries of the Clerk’s Office for the 2012 fiscal year.
Landrieu’s administration appeared to be most concerned by the second part of Cates’ ruling, which prohibited the city from imposing a permanent “budgetary holdback” on the Clerk’s Office. In his decision, Cates cited a 2013 state law forbidding the city from slashing the clerk’s budget for salaries without legislative approval.
City officials challenged the lower court ruling in part because they worried about its broader implications on the city’s rights under its home rule charter and their discretion in deciding how much money to give to the Clerk’s Office. In their appeal, they said Morrell had made a “blanket assertion that the city is obligated to fund every aspect of the Clerk’s Office” — a claim the city said is unsupported by state law.
“The clerk cannot force the city to further exceed its funding obligations and risk underfunding other critical city departments and agencies,” the city’s attorneys wrote in their appeal.
Judge Paul Bonin said he thought Williams had “raised a good point” in that state statutes only specifically spell out which Clerk’s Office salaries the city must fund. But he grilled Williams — accusing her at one point of “talking out of both sides of your mouth” about the city’s obligations under state law — and took exception to city officials likening Morrell’s office to a city agency.
“This is not a city agency, and I think that you ought to extricate that from your language,” Bonin said. “It’s a constitutional office, and it is supposed to be supported by somebody.”
Bonin later told Williams he “didn’t mean to be rude” and that he considered her a “terrific lawyer.”
“I was a little frustrated,” he added.
Judge Roland Belsome compared the city’s posture toward the Clerk’s Office with the Landrieu administration’s failure to pay millions of dollars to the city’s pension fund for firefighters.
“It’s as if the city decides, ‘We know better how to spend not only our money but how to spend other people’s money,’ ” Belsome said, “and that is part of the problem with these cases.”
The panel, which also included Judge Daniel Dysart, complained that the case record appeared to be sorely lacking in some areas, making it difficult for the judges to determine how much funding the Clerk’s Office requires. Morrell’s attorney, Madro Bandaries, suggested the panel could send the proceedings back to district court for an evidentiary hearing.
Wednesday’s arguments came one day after Morrell called a news conference to announce new abbreviated hours for bail bond services — a move he described as unavoidable in the face of staffing attrition and the city’s alleged refusal to approve new hires for his office. Beginning Monday, he said, his office won’t process bail bonds between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. because he doesn’t have enough bonding clerks to staff those hours.
Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, said later that the hiring freeze has finally been lifted because Morrell, for the first time in several years, is within his budget. “I told (Morrell) that he has now got his personnel spending within the budget and, as people leave, now they can be replaced,” he said.
The 4th Circuit panel did not say when it might rule.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian .