Federal appeals court says Orleans judge owes $300K tax bill _lowres

Harry Cantrell

Last time, the entire criminal court bench in New Orleans was held responsible for grabbing an unconstitutional $1 million a year.

This time the court's magistrate, Harry Cantrell, takes all the blame for another dodge that brings in about the same amount of money.

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It is true that, several weeks after federal judge Sarah Vance ruled against the judges, Cantrell's case remains open in her colleague Eldon Fallon's court. But let us not fret over technicalities. It's only a matter of time before Cantrell throws in the towel and quits squandering public money on legal fees. There is not a lawyer in the country who could get him out of this jam, and Fallon a couple of months ago gave short shrift to his motion to dismiss.

The judges lost in Vance's court because their expense fund relied on a percentage of the fines and fees they imposed on defendants. Those defendants were automatically put in jail without a hearing if they missed a payment even when, as was frequently the case, they were penniless and sick or pregnant. Plaintiffs in the case spent days or even weeks in jail while relatives cobbled together enough for their release and job opportunities went by the wayside.

Thus, the city, in accordance with state law, was running a debtors' prison for the judges' profit. Only legislators could fail to see the constitutional infirmities in such a set-up.

The law does not prescribe, or even allow, the procedures that apply in Cantrell's court, however. Cantell's is an elected position, with six-year terms, and a pretty humble one at that. Pretty much all he has to do is set bail for defendants while real judges take care of the main business. But Cantell regards himself as quite the big shot. He has become the tinpot pretrial tyrant.

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According to state law when bail is set, the defendant has the right to pay in cash, and thus avoid the 12-13 percent commission charged by commercial bond companies. But Cantrell refuses to accept any cash bonds, for obvious reasons. He and the judges of criminal court meet about 25 percent of their expenses from the cut they receive from each commercial bond.

When a defendant is released on a cash bond, on personal sureties or his own recognizance, courts do not get a penny. Attorneys sometimes request a cash bond., but Cantrell has proudly proclaimed he's never set one. So it's all commercial bonds so far as Cantrell is concerned. And a defendant who can't afford one must sit in jail, which takes much of the shine off the presumption of innocence.

And a lot of defendants do await trial in jail, because bonds do not come cheap in Cantell's court. The absolute minimum for the most trival misdemeanor in $2,500, and Cantell always refuses to consider a defendant's ability to pay, so, notwithstanding the Eighth Amendment, excessive bail often is required here. Attorneys who advocate for a lower amount have been threatened with jail for contempt.

Since pre-detention means lost employment, neglected families and less opportunity to prepare a sound defense, Cantrell's de facto denial of bail hardly serves the cause of justice. His job is to ensure defendants appear for trial, but he prefers to punish before conviction.

The federal appeals court in New Orleans has just upheld a Texas judge who ruled it was a denial of equal protection for courts there to employ an inflexible bail tariff and jail hard-up defendants. “The wealthy arrestee is less likely to plead guilty, more likely to receive a shorter sentence or be acquitted, and less likely to bear the social costs of incarceration,” the appeals court opined.

That reasoning surely applies with equal force to Cantrell. His contempt for the constitution and the statutes show he isn't much of a magistrate, but the chief conclusion to be drawn from transcripts of his hearings is that he falls short as a human being too.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.