Public interest lawyers who sued an Ascension Parish Court judge last year over how her court’s bail system unfairly affected the poor have now taken aim at a “conviction fee” she imposes on defendants found guilty of minor offenses.
In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in Baton Rouge on behalf of Gonzales-area resident Richard Williams, the lawyers claim the fee poses a conflict of interest for Judge Marilyn Lambert, and they allege the state laws related to the fee are unconstitutional.
State law authorizes the $15 conviction fee, and the fees are deposited into what’s called the judicial expense fund, which Lambert controls. A little more than one-third of that fund’s revenues, $136,480, came from conviction fees last fiscal year.
But state law also provides that part of Lambert’s salary should come from the fund.
“This arrangement creates impermissible incentives for the parish judge to find people guilty, because no conviction fee is extracted when she finds a defendant not guilty,” the lawsuit by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans alleges.
The lawsuit seeks class-action status by incorporating thousands of people with charges before the court now and in the future.
With that more sweeping application, the suit asks a federal judge to stop the collection of the conviction fee and declare the state laws allowing the practice unconstitutional because they deprive defendants of a disinterested and impartial judge.
Eric Foley, staff attorney for the MacArthur Justice Center, a nonprofit, public interest law firm, said in a statement that the entire structure represents “too much temptation” for the judge to be influenced to pay for court operations “by convicting defendants.”
“It’s just one of the more egregious examples of Louisiana’s neglect of the responsibility to fully fund the judicial system,” Foley added. “How many people brought before the Parish Court on traffic violations or other minor infractions realize that, in addition to their fine, they’ll also be paying for the judge’s salary and retirement benefits? If they knew that, would most people think they were receiving a fair and unbiased determination of their guilt or innocence?”
Created by the Legislature in 1976, Parish Court hears misdemeanor criminal offenses, traffic citations, juvenile matters and civil disputes worth no more than $20,000.
The court covers all of Ascension, including Gonzales, Sorrento and Donaldsonville.
As the court’s sole judge, Lambert earned $146,584.80 in annual salary last fiscal year, and the judicial expense fund paid $35,684 of that salary, the suit alleges. The state, the parish and the cities of Donaldsonville and Gonzales also contribute separately to Lambert’s salary, with the bulk from the state at $86,510.
Another $21,564 from the judicial expense fund went toward her retirement, an automobile stipend, and travel and conference expenses last fiscal year, the suit says.
About 90 percent of the Parish Court’s total expenses last year of $471,881 also came from the judicial expense fund, paying for support staff, a courier and an interpreter, the suit says.
Foley declined further comment Wednesday.
Lambert, who had court Wednesday, did not return a message by deadline.
The suit also names Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley, Clerk of Court Bridget Hanna and Gonzales Police Chief Sherman Jackson as defendants over their roles in collecting the fees and depositing them into the judicial expense fund.
Wiley collects for his office and Donaldsonville and Sorrento, where deputies provide police protection.
Wiley contended his office is a flow-through agency required to collect the fees by the law, as are Jackson’s and Hanna’s.
“I follow the law and the law is, ‘I shall collect these fines and fees.’ I shall. It is not arbitrary, and I shall disburse them to appropriate agencies, in this case, Parish Court,” Wiley said.
He also defended the fee structure, saying conviction fees and others like them are common in criminal justice systems across the nation.
“For people who like to live in a safe and orderly society, there ought to be consequences for criminal behavior. The MacArthur Justice Center and others like them are perfectly fine with no consequences to aberrant behavior,” the sheriff said.
Wiley also pushed back against the lawsuit’s inference that Lambert has been finding innocent people guilty in order to obtain the fees, calling the suggestion a “travesty” and saying she has an impeccable reputation as a judge.
“They owe her an apology,” Wiley said of the center. “She ought to sue them.”
Lambert and Wiley have tangled with the center before. In late August, the center sued them on behalf of Rebecca M. Snow, who then lived in Gonzales, claiming she was too poor to afford her $579 bail over a charge of shoplifting at Wal-Mart.
After U.S. District Judge Shelly D. Dick ordered Snow released days following that suit, the sheriff, judge and center reached a settlement to prevent poor defendants from being held in Ascension Parish Prison on bail for misdemeanor charges they can’t afford. The settlement provided Lambert some discretion on crimes of violence.
In the latest suit, the plaintiff, Williams, 59, is a defendant before Lambert after he received a citation from an Ascension Parish sheriff’s deputy in November for a nuisance allegedly created by his dogs’ barking, a statement from the center says.
Williams, whose trial was set for Wednesday but was continued to July 20, has received three prior animal control citations since November 2014. Lambert found him guilty of two counts Oct. 14, 2015, about a month before his latest citation, court minutes show.
Williams was given two consecutive sentences of one year of probation in lieu of 30 days in jail. Lambert ordered him not to have any more barking dog incidents while on probation.
Snow, 34, now of Denham Springs, the plaintiff in the earlier lawsuit against the Ascension court, pleaded guilty April 13 to the shoplifting charge in Ascension as prosecutors dropped a charge of remaining after being forbidden and agreed not bill her as a habitual offender.
That plea came more than a month after she pleaded guilty to eating doughnuts without paying and shoplifting nearly $110 in items from a Wal-Mart in Central in January while she was out of jail on the Ascension charge.
In courts in East Baton Rouge and Ascension, Snow was sentenced to about 100 days in prison on each of the counts, concurrent, with credit for time served. Foley, the center attorney, who also represented Snow, said she has completed the jail time and is no longer incarcerated.