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.

Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell has opened a new front in a years-old budget battle, claiming Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration continues to shortchange his office hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in violation of state law.  

Morrell said he will ask a judge next week to order City Hall to compensate him for four years of inadequate funding.

The clerk claims the city owes his office nearly $2.5 million and that he has been unable to fill some 17 vacancies due to his budget shortfall.

Morrell prevailed in his previous litigation against the city, which dragged on for years but involved only his 2012 budget. His latest lawsuit, filed last month in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, addresses funding from 2013 to 2016 that the clerk contends has been unlawfully withheld.

"It's demoralizing to my people because they were looking for some kind of relief," Morrell said Wednesday. "There's no logic or law or reasoning for (the city) to do what they're doing."   

City officials filed a lawsuit of their own last month asking a judge to rule that the Landrieu administration owes nothing to Morrell for past years and that the clerk is subject to the City Council's budgetary oversight.

Hayne Rainey, a City Hall spokesman, said the administration "disagrees with the clerk’s interpretation of state law" as well as a state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ruling this year that upheld a $141,000 judgment in Morrell's favor.

Judge Sidney Cates IV has scheduled a hearing Tuesday to consider the dueling lawsuits. Cates last year ruled against the city on the funding issue.

Morrell's attorney, Madro Bandaries, acknowledged Wednesday that it had been "a mistake" to address funding for only 2012 in Morrell's initial lawsuit. But, he added, "we never anticipated that we would get into such a dispute with the city." 

"We tried to work this out with the city with a sit-down meeting and couldn't get it done," Bandaries said. "It's our feeling that they're dragging their feet."

Morrell maintains that he needs 90.5 employees to run the Clerk's Office and that the appellate court's ruling supported that contention.

The Landrieu administration, in recent court filings, argues that Morrell has "successfully operated" his office with just 75 employees for nearly five years and that the clerk actually spent less than the amount the city allocated to him in 2014 and 2015.

To grant the clerk's request, city attorneys added, "would result in a windfall to his office." 

"The clerk cannot reverse time and retroactively spend those funds in the proper budget year," Cherrell Simms Taplin, the senior chief deputy city attorney, wrote in a court filing, citing the city's home rule charter. "Whether the clerk would have filled those positions had the city appropriated additional funding is now a moot point."

Morrell countered that staffing shortages have significantly curtailed services at the Clerk's Office, including reducing operation of the evidence room from five days a week to two.

"We're behind in a lot of things," he said. "We have documents that are filed but not put in their folders and are loose, and it takes time to go find them. Last week, there were three people on vacation. Three people got sick."

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