The Metropolitan Crime Commission has issued its latest scorecard for the criminal court judges of Orleans Parish, finding that the number of pending felony cases in the courthouse slid from 2011 to last year, but that more cases tended to linger longer in the courtrooms of more than half the judges.
That may not be laziness at work, but a push by police and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to focus on violent crime and weapons cases that simply take longer, commission president Rafael Goyeneche said.
“It’s a byproduct of what the community wants, what the mayor promised the public, what the DA promised the public,” Goyeneche said. “We’re going to focus on violent crime, repeat offenders and weapons offenders. It’s not a bad sign.”
Along with taking the pulse of the criminal courthouse as a whole, the annual report rates judges in three categories that add up to a “judicial efficiency” ranking. As in years past, it found glaring disparities among the dozen judges.
For instance, the median time for felony cases to wrap up was 103 days for Judge Karen Herman, but 220 days for Judge Benedict Willard, the report found. Also, 38 percent of Criminal District Judge Darryl Derbigny’s open cases were more than a year old — ranking him last — while just 18 percent of Herman’s cases had lingered for that long.
At the same time, however, Derbigny ranked in the top half of the judges in the median processing time for his felony cases — at 144 days. That suggests that most of his nearly 300 cases move quickly, but a big share drag for years.
Overall, Herman led the rankings, as she has since she took the bench in 2009. Judge Keva-Landrum Johnson rose from fourth to second. Judge Franz Zibilich, who took over the Section L bench in early 2012 with the retirement of Judge Terry Alarcon, ranked third. Judge Julian Parker dropped to the bottom rung, with Willard also ranked low, in a tie with Lynda Van Davis, who left the bench last year.
Willard and Parker both saw the median processing times for their felony cases rise by nearly a month.
“The whole point we’re trying to say is, the bottom judges, they’ve lost touch with the vast majority of the court,” Goyeneche said. “If three-fourths of the court can do it, there’s no reason the bottom fourth can’t. “
The rankings invariably provoke disgust from many of the judges, who argue that they paint a deeply distorted and simplistic picture of the goings-on at the courthouse at Tulane and Broad.
“There’s no analysis to it, as to why,” Judge Arthur Hunter said. “You have the what, but you don’t have the why. Every judge doesn’t have the same caseload or the same types of cases.”
Hunter ranked eighth of the 12 judges in the commission’s scorecard. Last year, he ranked fifth.
At a recent City Council budget hearing, several of the judges argued that they are at the mercy of prosecutors, noting that legally they have no choice but to delay court appearances if both sides request it. Another recent report by CourtWatch NOLA, slamming the judges for a “culture of continuances,” also hit a nerve.
“When you read these reports by people who have really never practiced in Criminal District Court — I may have a high number of continuances, but a very speedy docket,” Chief Judge Camille Buras told a joint council committee looking at the criminal justice system budgets.
One other increasingly relevant factor, Buras said, is the number of state racketeering cases that Cannizzaro’s office has lodged, many of them sweeping a dozen or more alleged gang members into a single, complicated cluster of a case.
“I have the case involving the ‘110ers,’” new Criminal District Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier told the council members. “It’s about 15 defendants involving more than 50 counts. They’re multiple offenses within each count, then multiple defendants within each count.” In such cases, it has often taken weeks or longer just to round up enough attorneys.
In court on Thursday, Zibilich agreed that those cases are really dozens wrapped into one. He said the only legitimate barometer for judges is the number of cases closed each year. As it happens, Zibilich led the court in closed cases, with 513, the report said.
“That’s how you keep score: How many cases you move. Doesn’t that make sense?” he said. “It’s the reality. That’s what we do here.”
Willard, who consistently has ranked near the bottom of the commission’s scorecard, has noted that he also ranks high in the number of trials held. Indeed, Willard ranked near the top in the total number of trials in 2012, including both judge and jury trials, according to the report.
At the same time, Willard’s median case lag time was more than two months longer than the court average. He also ranked high in continuances, at just over three per case. At the low end was Judge Frank Marullo, with 1.7 per case. Willard declined to comment on the report.
The numbers underscored a marked shift in Cannizzaro’s approach from trial-pusher to dealmaker.
The courthouse saw just 113 jury trials last year, according to the commission, which does not include trials that fail to reach a verdict or trials that result in settlements before testimony begins. According to the court’s judicial administrator, Rob Kazik, the total number of trials last year was 188, down from 329 in 2011, when Cannizzaro had pressed the judges to work harder. The shelf life of Cannizzaro’s public challenge proved short.
The commission’s report found that Orleans Parish remains far behind the nation in how quickly felony cases move along — by a good two months. But Goyeneche called that an unfair comparison, with the New Orleans courthouse handling a far higher percentage of violent felony and weapons cases than most do.
The report can be found at www.metrocrime.org.