Mayor Mitch Landrieu is close to scoring some legislative paydirt with passage of a bill that would shrink the number of judges at Orleans Parish Juvenile Court by a third, saving the city and state almost $1 million annually by one estimate.
All that’s left is for Gov. Bobby Jindal to sign the bill, which his office said he was still reviewing Monday.
But while Landrieu may be toasting the legislation, which would remove two of the six Juvenile Court judgeships over time, the bill is hardly good news for Judge Yolanda King, who already faces indictment for allegedly lying about where she lived when she ran for office last year.
A late change to Senate Bill 445, authored by state Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Pearl River, could move King to the front of the line for the judicial guillotine.
King, 54, has been pacing the court’s sideline since last month, when the Louisiana Supreme Court barred her from taking the bench while she awaits prosecution by Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office.
A state grand jury indicted her March 20 on two felony counts for allegedly falsifying her qualifying papers last year when she listed a New Orleans domicile. King held a homestead exemption for years at a home she owns in Slidell, where neighbors said she lived. King claims she was mistakenly granted the tax break without knowing it.
Endorsing a recommendation from the Judiciary Commission, the Supreme Court on May 15 declared her “disqualified from exercising any judicial function during the pendency of further proceedings in this matter.”
Under the bill on Jindal’s desk, axing one of the two Juvenile Court judgeships would be a simple matter. Judge Lawrence Lagarde Jr. will be forced to leave the court anyway this year because of his age. His seat would be abolished on Dec. 31.
The bill until lately called for the second judgeship to vanish whenever the next sitting judge retires, resigns, gets removed or dies. But the Legislature later added a new category: a judgeship that goes vacant by “disqualification from exercising any judicial function pursuant to order of the Louisiana Supreme Court.”
The change would seem to catch King directly in its crosshairs. Depending on a legal interpretation, it could mean that King’s seat would disappear Jan. 1 if Jindal signs the bill and King is still suspended.
Removal of both Lagarde and King would help Landrieu realize his desire to cut costs by shrinking various local courts that have been deemed bloated in several studies, including one by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office.
Thanks to a steep drop in caseload, Juvenile Court appears to be the most bloated among them, according to an assessment by the Bureau of Governmental Research that used the state courts’ own workload formula. The BGR report, released in September, suggested that the six current Juvenile Court judges may be five too many.
Under the bill on Jindal’s desk, the savings from eliminating the two judges would be funneled to other juvenile services.
Asked Monday by email about the language in the bill that appears to target King, Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble sent a statement saying only that the mayor “worked in partnership with the Orleans delegation and judges on the streamlining of the city’s court systems. Numerous reports have suggested that New Orleans has too many juvenile judges. By rightsizing the court, the city general fund can save $1.12 million per year, and $2.15 million will be saved in additional capital costs. These savings can be reinvested in juvenile services given our public safety needs.”
Landrieu has had no luck so far on shrinking Municipal and Traffic courts, although the Legislature on Monday hashed out a bill to merge those two courts’ administrations in 2017 while leaving them with eight judges, pending more study.
Last year, state Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, put the brakes on a bill for a smaller Juvenile Court, arguing for more time for study by a committee he heads.
Murray said Monday that he opposed the bill again this year because “I really do think these decisions should be objective and not political.” He said claims that the court is far overstaffed appear to be exaggerated, given the demands federal law places on the court.
Questions about the new language in the bill only added to his concern, Murray said.
“As far as I know, it’s the first and only time that we have said if a judge is removed (from the bench), that judgeship should be vacated,” he said. “It further complicates the issue.”
Murray actually voted in favor of the bill, but he said that was an accident and he has filed a notice to reverse it.
King edged out Doug Hammel in a runoff last year to complete the term of Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier, who won a seat on the Criminal Court bench. According to her lawyer, King will run for re-election this year as an incumbent, even if she can’t retake her seat until her criminal case is resolved.
“I don’t see any reason she shouldn’t,” said Clarence Roby Jr.
King argues that she gave her true address in New Orleans East when she qualified to run and that she was unknowingly granted the homestead exemption in St. Tammany Parish. However, d ocuments — namely, a signed application for a homestead exemption from 2006 — suggest otherwise.
Judges must be domiciled in the parish or district where they serve, under the state constitution, which also prohibits decreasing the length of a judge’s term during that term in office.
At issue is whether the wording of the bill would allow for King’s removal while she’s temporarily disqualified from taking the bench. Crowe, the bill’s author, did not return a call for comment.
“What if the allegations are not true, that she’s not convicted, then it turns out she gets a clean bill of health?” asked LSU law professor Gregory Smith. “That’s always possible. The removal would happen potentially under the legislation even though she might be innocent.”
Roby has claimed that King is being singled out based on false allegations. He called the legislation a cynical move to punish King before she gets a chance to defend herself.
“I’m disappointed but not surprised,” Roby said. “There’s a reason why we constantly are being slapped on the hand by the court system. Legislators don’t seem to understand due process.”
The Supreme Court has yet to appoint another judge to handle King’s docket while she is suspended, said Valerie Willard, a spokeswoman for the court.
Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office, said the office is unaware of any law that would automatically exclude King from running for re-election while she is suspended.
All 12 Criminal District Court judges have recused themselves from hearing King’s criminal case. Retired Judge Michael Kirby from Plaquemines Parish has been appointed to preside over the case.
King, who is free on bond, is due back in court on Thursday.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.