The dozen judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court last year continued to shave the time needed to wrap up felony cases, even as the share of violent crimes and weapons offenses on their dockets rose, according to a report released Wednesday by a nonprofit criminal justice watchdog group.
The Metropolitan Crime Commission’s annual Judicial Accountability Report found that, overall, the judges hit a higher gear in moving felony cases through the courthouse at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street, despite an increase in the average number of those cases pending at any one time — a total of about 2,700 such cases last year.
A remarkable 45 percent of those cases are for violent offenses or gun-related felonies, far higher than the 29 percent national average.
The result is laudable, said commission President Rafael Goyeneche.
“This is probably the best report I’ve seen with the court. It’s stronger top-to-bottom today than at any time in the past 15 years,” Goyeneche said. “But it’s going to have to be, to keep up with the pace being set by police and prosecutors.”
He said he expects that as more officers are hired to refill the New Orleans police force’s depleted ranks, there will be more felony arrests and fuller dockets at Tulane and Broad down the road.
In the meantime, the annual report card says median case processing times at the courthouse — long viewed by many as a clogged, chaotic mess — have been cut from 157 days to 117 days in three years and now are less than a week behind the national average of 111 days cited in a 2013 federal study looking at the largest urban counties in the nation.
The pace actually would fall below the national average if not for the bottom rung of judges on the commission’s scorecard, Goyeneche said.
Once again, the annual report highlights a huge disparity among the 12 judges in three categories: their inventory of open cases, the share of open felony cases that are more than a year old and median case processing times.
The docket of Judge Franz Zibilich, for instance, averaged 115 open felony cases last year, compared with 422 for bottom-ranking Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier.
Just 1 in 8 cases on Zibilich’s docket was more than a year old, compared with close to half on the Section G docket that was overseen by Judge Julian Parker before he left the bench last year and bequeathed his bulging caseload to newly elected Judge Byron C. Williams.
It took an average of 54 days for felony cases to be concluded in Zibilich’s courtroom last year, compared with 200 days in Flemings-Davillier’s section. That figure actually marked a sharp decline from the 248 days it took her section to resolve the average case in 2013, the former Juvenile Court judge’s first full year on the Section B bench.
Overall, Zibilich took the MCC’s top “efficiency” ranking away from Judge Karen Herman, who tied Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson for the second spot in the latest rankings.
Zibilich has taken to imposing $50 fines on criminal defense attorneys who show up late in his section.
“One of the promises I made is that I would get to work early and be at work every day, and I think that goes a long way,” said Zibilich, a former deputy city attorney who won the Section L seat in a 2011 election. “I’ve said all along that justice delayed is justice denied. I’m doing everything in my power so justice is not delayed.”
The MCC’s ratings have long rankled many of the court’s judges. They complain that the annual report oversimplifies their work and ignores challenges that include complex multiple-defendant cases. Six of the Criminal District Court judges also run specialty courts in addition to their regular dockets, including drug, mental health, veterans, domestic violence and re-entry courts. However, Zibilich and Herman are among those six.
The critics also note that District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s prosecutors largely control the court’s docket, limiting judges’ ability to force cases forward. Much depends on the quality of prosecutors assigned to their sections, some judges say. All that hasn’t stopped the commission from targeting the lowest-ranking judges for criticism.
This year, Flemings-Davillier took the bottom ranking, trailed by the retired Parker and Section J Judge Darryl Derbigny.
Goyeneche acknowledged that Flemings-Davillier inherited a “horrible, bloated” docket from former Judge Lynda Van Davis when the former won the Section B seat in 2012. But according to the report, her average inventory of open cases has only grown, from an average of 370 last year to 422 in 2014.
The report says Flemings-Davillier had the biggest improvement in median case processing time, even though she continued to rank last. It also says violent crime cases in her section took twice as long as the court average to get resolved, while 49 percent of violent crime felonies in her section were more than a year old, compared with 35 percent in the courthouse as a whole.
Flemings-Davillier defended her work in an interview, saying she has cleared all but 37 of the 357 cases she inherited, along with more than 90 percent of the cases randomly allotted to her section in 2013.
“This is what the numbers show in terms of how many cases I’ve gotten and how many cases I’ve resolved. If we were going on case closures, I’d be way up there,” she said. “I think I’ve done a great job. I’m proud of the hard work I do. I don’t think the report accurately reflects the intrinsic value of what a judge does on the bench.”
Judges with the most swollen caseloads often struggle to reduce them, in part because, under court rules, any new charges a defendant picks up while free on bond usually go to the same court section.
Perhaps the most notable figure in the report is the share of violent felony and weapons cases on the docket in Orleans Parish. Violent felonies now make up slightly more than a third of the court’s overall caseload, with drug felonies second at 28 percent. Nationally, violent felonies make up 25 percent of criminal courts’ felony caseloads, with drug felonies at 33 percent, the report says.
In Orleans Parish, 11 percent of the felony caseload is for weapons cases, compared with 4 percent nationally, the report says.
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, praised the MCC and credited “progressive reforms” in the DA’s Office with helping to reduce case processing times.
“What is most encouraging about the number is that we’ve been able to achieve that when a higher percentage of our cases are crimes of violence and firearms-related offenses. That continues to be our focus,” Bowman said.
The report can be found at www.metrocrime.org.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.