Louisiana voters have awarded judgeships to so many rogues and petty despots that bird-dogging the bench must be a daunting challenge.

But, if reining in every errant jurist is too much to expect, Harry Cantrell's mean-spirited, self serving and unconstitutional antics deserved to attract the state Judiciary Commission's attention long ago.

Cantrell is proof that even tinpot officials can cause a lot of misery. He plays a subsidiary role in New Orleans Criminal Court, deciding how much bond defendants must post while they await their date with a full-fledged judge. Cantrell has been handling that chore since 1998 when he was appointed commissioner. For the last four years he has done it as an elected magistrate.

The judges no doubt appreciate Cantrell's service, for he and they scoop up 1.8 percent of the money put up by bail bondsmen. The $1 million a year thus raised helps pay for the operation of the court and for various treats that judges award themselves.

If a defendant should use his own money to post bond, the court would not be entitled to a slice. But that never happens with Cantrell, because, in a blatant and arrogant abrogation of defendants' rights, he refuses to accept cash bonds. If you want out of jail, you have to see a bondsman and pay the commission.

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Evidently Cantrell is not a great constitutional scholar, but, given the somewhat limited scope of his duties, he should at least be familiar with the Eighth Amendment. Shoot, all he needs to read is the first six words – “Excessive bail shall not be required.”

In Cantrell's court, the minimum bail, no matter how trivial the alleged offense or how impoverished the defendant, is $2,500.

Cantrell could, of course, release defendants with no money down if he wishes. The purpose of bail is merely to secure attendance at trial, and it is commonplace for judges in more rational jurisdictions to release penny-ante defendants on their own recognizance if there is no flight risk. Not only is that option non-existent in Cantrell's court, but attorneys who try to make a case for a smaller bond are told to shut up or be held in contempt. They can do their duty by their clients, or go to jail. In America?

Any bail that is utterly beyond a defendant's means must qualify as “excessive,” but the ability to pay is not a consideration in Cantrell's court. Cantrell, evidently a stranger to the concept of due process, conducts no hearings on the issue, but merely announces a bond amount. Defendants can only hope they get the mandatory minimum.

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Since cash is verboten, they will then find a bondsman, who will take a 13 percent commission. The rich ones will thus be forced to pay for a service they don't need, but they are a distinct minority, crime being very much a poor man's game. Many defendants are so hard up, they cannot lay their hands on the scratch for a bondsman's commission and have to sit in jail until their trial comes up.

A federal class-action that seeks to force Cantrell to quit denying defendants their constitutional rights sets out the consequences of his high-handed and pitiless approach. Defendants are confined in the famously hellish conditions of the New Orleans jail while jobs and housing are lost and dependents go untended. Studies have concluded that defendants who do not make bail are much likelier to be found guilty and to be sentenced to prison.

If Cantrell lacks sympathy for the poor, perhaps it is because he can hardly imagine what their life is like. The law practice he was allowed to operate on the side when he was court commissioner did so well that he declared $1.5 million in income for 2001, although he paid no taxes until the IRS secured a lien 2003. He then paid then some $300,000, and refused to cough up any more until a federal court in 2014 ruled that he had met only half of his liability.

Cantrell's law practice may have been lucrative, but it evidently overstretched him, for he was sanctioned by the state Supreme Court in 2003 for neglecting his clients. When he was elected magistrate, Cantrell converted his old law office and rented it out for $245 a night through Airbnb.

That was a clear violation of zoning laws, and Cantrell is evidently now out of the short-term rental racket. It should not be long before his court shapes up too. The lawsuit got there before the Judiciary Commission.

Email James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com

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