A word of advice to potential felons: Check your calendar before committing a crime.
The chances your case will languish in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court vary widely depending on the judge assigned to it, usually in a randomized “allotment” process dictated by the date of the offense.
Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche said there is little excuse for the gap between the most and least efficient judges, and in an annual scorecard released Sunday, the commission called out some of lowest-ranking judges, saying the delays in their courtrooms are the result of poor management and a culture of delay.
The “Judicial Accountability Report” for 2013 found dramatic disparities among judges in their overall caseloads, the share of cases on their dockets that have sat unresolved for more than a year and their median processing times for felony cases.
Not surprisingly, the judges with longer delays tended to be weighed down by the thickest dockets, in spite of a process the court’s dozen judges chose to parcel out cases evenly among themselves.
The heaviest loads fall on Judges Tracey Flemings-Davillier and Darryl Derbigny. The former is a relative newcomer to the court, the latter a two-term veteran.
In 2013, both judges carried more cases pending for at least a year — 159 for Flemings-Davillier and 120 for Derbigny — than the entire caseloads of Judges Franz Zibilich and Karen Herman, the two judges ranked as the most efficient.
While Flemings-Davillier ranked lowest in overall efficiency, Goyeneche noted that she inherited a bloated docket when she took over in 2012 from former Judge Lynda Van Davis.
The report therefore largely gave a pass to Flemings-Davillier, who could not be reached Friday, over a whopping 73-day increase in the time it takes cases in her Section B courtroom to get resolved. “She inherited the largest, most unwieldy docket on the court,” Goyeneche said.
Judge Julian Parker rounded out the bottom fourth in the commission’s overall efficiency ranking — a bottom tier that Goyeneche said the report is targeting.
Goyeneche said low efficiency among some judges weighs on the criminal justice system and the city, wasting the time and patience of victims and witnesses and sapping tax dollars by dragging police back to court for hearings that are repeatedly delayed.
“This absolutely affects everything and everybody in the city of New Orleans,” Goyeneche said. “Judges don’t have to punch a clock when they report to work. Where a judge can get out of work is granting continuances they don’t have to grant.”
The commission’s annual comparison ranking grates on several of the judges, who dispute the methodology used and say the commission fails to take into account, for instance, that the District Attorney’s Office controls the docket and has significant power to drag out a case.
Several judges declined to comment on the report, which arrives just weeks before the start of the 2014 election season, with all dozen judgeships at the court up for grabs.
Overall, the report shows a 29 percent decline since 2011 in open felony cases in the courthouse at Tulane and Broad — largely a result of fewer arrests in the city, according to the commission.
Felony case processing times also fell by 17 percent in a year. But the share of cases that were more than a year old increased, with eight of the 12 judges seeing more long-running cases.
That is a result, Goyeneche said, of a push by District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office to focus on violent crime and gun cases, and to pursue sentences under the state’s habitual offender law.
Such high-stakes cases tend to take longer.
The report shows a steady climb since 2011 in the percentage of cases in the court that involve violent felonies.
“That’s not a bad thing,” Goyeneche said of the resulting rise in the share of older cases.
The problem, he said, is that the numbers vary so widely between courtrooms.
In Derbigny’s Section K, 44 percent of the cases are more than a year old. In Section H, where Judge Camille Buras sits, it’s 18 percent. Derbigny, Flemings-Davillier and Parker all had at least 40 percent of their cases on the docket for a year or more. The average was 30 percent.
Zibilich had the lowest caseload, at 115 — less than a third that of Flemings-Davillier. He also disposed of cases most quickly, with a median time of 83 days compared to 248 days for Flemings-Davillier. The median time for Derbigny, Judge Arthur Hunter and Chief Judge Benedict Willard was more than double the time it took for cases to be resolved in Zibilich’s courtroom.
Willard, who also made the largest jump in the MCC’s efficiency rankings — from 10th in 2012 to seventh — said he is on active military duty in the Army Reserve until August and could not comment.
The report also said Zibilich reduced his caseload by 81 cases last year, the largest reduction on the court.
“There shouldn’t be the disparity between the court average and the bottom quarter of the court,” Goyeneche said. “At the end of the day, it’s about how the judge manages the cases before them.”
Despite his speed, Zibilich came in second behind Herman because he ranked lower in the number of long-running cases. Zibilich complained that the report gives too much weight to that ranking; those are the hardest cases to control, he said.
Zibilich, who won a 2011 election to succeed Judge Terry Alarcon, noted that he moved more cases through his courtroom — 385 — than any other judge. The average for all the court sections was 323, with 78 percent of the cases concluded by way of a guilty plea.
“I can’t control the state when they decide to continue an old case,” Zibilich said. “When you inherit the second-largest docket in the building and within two years you have the lowest docket in the building and have moved the most cases, that should be what counts.”
Several judges have noted that the court’s allotment process doesn’t necessarily make things fair because some cases involve multiple defendants. The commission’s figures are based on the total number of defendants per courtroom.
Judges also have complained that the rankings fail to take into account the massive, multiple-defendant racketeering cases that Cannizzaro’s office has brought to the court with growing regularity as part of a coordinated bid to stem killings in the city.
Some judges have grumbled at getting a burdensome share of those cases, leading to skewed rankings from the commission.
Goyeneche said the rankings are aimed at ensuring that judges aren’t plucking the low-hanging fruit at the expense of more difficult cases.
He noted that the judges approved the date-driven allotment process.
“Look in the mirror,” he said. “Don’t look at the Crime Commission and scream about it.”
The court’s judges commissioned a study of the commission’s rankings by the National Center for State Courts, which found the watchdog organization’s way of judging the court “completely reasonable” and “wholly consistent” with national measures.
But the national group’s report also had the judges’ political backs, arguing that by singling out individual judges, the commission was making the judges “unnecessarily vulnerable to pressures” from police, prosecutors and the MCC itself.
Judge Laurie White, a vocal critic of the annual scorecard, has long complained that the report overstates the judges’ power to move cases in a system where prosecutors control the docket.
But White agreed with the commission’s call for a unified “case management system” to replace the separate systems run by the court, the district attorney, the sheriff and others.
Because of the balkanized system, White complained, judges often don’t have key information about a case at their fingertips.
“For once, the MCC and I can agree on one big point: Our efficiency could be improved and monitored more easily if we had (a single system),” she said, adding that she’s attending a meeting on the long-standing issue next week.
“It’s my plan for that to be my legacy for the courthouse,” she said.
White has maintained consistency over the last three years in the MCC’s scorecard, ranking seventh each year.
The report can be found at www.metrocrime.org
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.