State Supreme Court hands Orleans Criminal Court Clerk Arthur Morrell victory in scrap with Landrieu administration _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN MCCUSKER -- Arthur Morrell makes notes during a joint hearing of the City Council's criminal justice and budget committees in July 2013.

City attorneys told a judge Tuesday that Arthur Morrell, the clerk of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, has waited too long to request more money for several recent years in which he claims Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration shortchanged his office.

The clerk blames inadequate funding for chronic staffing shortages and curtailed services at his office, while the Landrieu administration contends that Morrell's budget is adequate.

The two sides are arguing over about $2.4 million Morrell did not receive from 2013 through 2016. 

"You can't cut payroll checks in the past," Adam Swensek, a chief deputy city attorney, told Civil District Court Judge Sidney Cates IV during a hearing. "The clerk has sat on his hands for years." 

It's the second time that Cates has been asked to settle a financial feud between Morrell and City Hall — a complex dispute over case law and the state statutes that govern the clerk's funding.

The judge Tuesday gave little indication as to how he intends to rule, taking the matter under advisement. 

Morrell insists that the Landrieu administration is required by law to fund 90.5 employee positions in his office every year, a figure that includes both full-time and part-time workers. The clerk has said he needs to hire at least 17 additional employees, a request the city has denied.

"The city does not have the power to tell him what's necessary. That's why he was elected," Madro Bandaries, Morrell's attorney, said during the hearing. "He has to keep that building open, and it's a big job."

City officials contend the City Council retains budgetary discretion over the Clerk's Office and that Morrell is not entitled to a completely free hand in hiring or deciding how much he will get from the city.

City attorneys also argued that the clerk's request for dollars the City Council denied him in previous budget years has become moot. They pointed to two recent years in which they said Morrell did not even exhaust the allocation he received from the city. 

"This is a $2.4 million bonus," Swensek said. "The city's Home Rule Charter is clear: If you don't use your budget in a given year, you lose it." 

Morrell prevailed in an earlier lawsuit he brought against the city for funding related to his 2012 budget, winning a $141,000 judgment against the city. He filed suit against the city again last month for money for the subsequent years, portraying the earlier litigation as vindication of his position and accusing the Landrieu administration of dragging its feet.

City officials, however, have said the facts of the 2012 case are significantly different, in that the former dispute involved the Mayor's Office holding back a portion of the money already allocated to the clerk by the council, amounting to about 3.8 percent of the office's total budget. Similar cuts were imposed on other city departments to balance the budget.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.