Orleans courthouse

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court is undergoing renovations including for removal of asbestos and lead in New Orleans, La. Thursday, March 2, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges say they have scoured more than 4,000 arrest warrants and voided more than $1 million in fees for court costs, hoping to render moot a federal civil rights lawsuit over the practice of funding court operations in part with fines and fees levied on mainly poor defendants.

The judges say those extraordinary measures should let them avoid the crippling threat to their budget the lawsuit poses. However, civil rights lawyers argue New Orleans courts are still using indigent defendants as an illegal revenue stream.

The plaintiffs are asking a federal judge to declare unconstitutional the entire system of using fines and fees to fill out the court's budget, arguing the state judges have a hopeless conflict of interest because defendants found guilty in their courtrooms are expected to help finance the court's operations, though not to help pay the judges' salaries. 

If the suit succeeds, the judges might be forced to go begging to the city or state instead.

The two sides made their cases to U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance last week, with each asking her to rule for them without proceeding to a trial.

The dueling motions offer a glimpse at shifts in the court's operations as its budget comes under increasing scrutiny.

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The lawsuit has been wending its way through court since September 2015, when a group of indigent defendants who were convicted of crimes filed suit against the Criminal District Court judges, the city, Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Clerk of Court Arthur Morrell, court Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik and Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell.

The judges, Kazik and Gusman are the only remaining defendants after the judge dismissed the others.

All of the remaining plaintiffs were jailed for more than 72 hours each without receiving a hearing on their ability to pay court fines and fees.

The suit claims the court created an unconstitutional “debtors’ prison” by jailing the defendants for failure to pay without giving them a hearing.

In 2015, 536 people were booked into jail for failure to pay court fines and fees or for missing court dates on past-due payments, according to a Vera Institute of Justice report.

Despite criticism from outside groups, the court continues to draw a large share of its discretionary budget from fines and fees placed on criminal defendants. The plaintiffs say that percentage rose from 50 percent in 2013 to 56 percent in 2015.

The city's share of the court's budget also rose over that period, from 18 percent to 39 percent, as city lawmakers made up for shortfalls in state funding.

The documents also show judges made a major shift between 2012 and 2015 from assessing fines — which are split with the District Attorney’s Office — to assessing fees that go only to the court.

The fees charged in two key categories rose from $813,000 in 2012 to $1,416,000 three years later. Meanwhile, fines plummeted from $637,000 to $86,000.

The most surprising shift was the rise of the previously obscure “indigent transcript fund” fee. Judges imposed a paltry $9,800 in transcript fees in 2012, but that number skyrocketed to $297,800 in 2015.

“There’s a number of judges that don’t assess any fines at all, because they have to split those with the DA. None of this is related in any way to justice. It’s all about raising money,” said Alec Karakatsanis, an attorney for the plaintiffs and executive director of the Civil Rights Corps, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit law firm.

The transcript fee is one of the few categories of court costs with no cap under state law, according to Karakatsanis.

“It’s all shrouded in mystery," he said. "That appears to be one of the fees the judges control 100 percent. And it looks like there’s no limit to how much they can charge.” 

Actual collections of the charges hover around 50 percent. The total raised went from $830,000 in 2012 to $1,188,000 in 2015.

Fees and collections have gone up even though the number of cases closed by the judges dropped from 5,904 in 2012 to 4,282 in 2015.

In their filings, the judges say they have written off upward of $1 million in fees for court costs and have undertaken a massive, painstaking operation to examine 4,100 arrest warrants issued for failure to pay, recalling an undisclosed number of them.

The individual plaintiffs in the case before Vance also have had their remaining fines and fees waived, which the judges argue should make their lawsuit moot.

In addition, the judges have revoked the power that court collections agents once had to issue arrest warrants without consulting judges. Warrants relating to late court fines and fees are now handled by the judges on their regular docket.

The plaintiffs argue that despite the changes, many defendants still face jail time for unpaid fines and fees. Karakatsanis said he believes there may still be many such warrants outstanding.

“There’s all these old warrants that were in the system that were issued for people who haven’t been arrested. These are very, very hard things to fix,” he said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432