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Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, right, chats with Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, left, as the House meets for the last day of the special session Friday Oct. 23, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

When children are victims in, say, a car wreck and are awarded substantial damages by the court, judges generally appoint someone to ensure the money is spent on medical care and education rather than on a new boat for Dad.

Minnesota in the 1980s discovered that because of how differently courts were funded across that state, some judges hired lawyers to be the child’s guardian ad litem, and others used volunteers. In Florida, the counties were so unevenly funded in the 1990s that a judge collected leftover pens to give to trial courts in “have not” counties, according to a National Center for State Courts draft report commissioned by a Louisiana task force. Louisiana is aiming to figure out how to get state taxpayers to pay for courts that are now primarily funded through whatever revenues they can raise themselves.

Minnesota, Florida, and almost all the other states reorganized their court systems and put the state in charge of paying to ensure equal justice regardless of venue. Only then can the courts be unified in their policies and functions all the way down to “court furnishings and equipment,” the report states.

Today, Minnesota’s judicial branch is nearly totally state-funded, with 2,100 employees moved from county payrolls to the state, along with responsibility for $137 million in expenditures.

Last week, the Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding met for first time in person — during the pandemic they video-conferenced — with a goal of corralling Louisiana’s courts, which have grown over time into independent entities.

The first step is to get a handle on the number of courts, what they do, and just how they get their revenues. Various fees from traffic tickets to asset forfeitures to pretrial diversions to criminal court costs to restitution were set up by local courts and parishes. Each jurisdiction is different.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor reported Tuesday that their auditors had collected — during their annual review of local governments — data from an astounding 1,150 courts statewide, including justices of the peace and constables. And that doesn’t include the better-known judicial district courts, which don’t have to report until Dec. 31.

“The overall picture, with everybody in there, will be early next year,” said Judith Dettwiller, a senior analyst for the auditor’s office.

Already Rep. Tanner Magee, the Houma Republican who chairs the task force, was surprised to learn from preliminary data that many courts had contracted private firms to do collections and added up to 30% onto the fees owed. “That never really dawned on me before,” Magee said.

It’s not just a good government exercise. Federal courts already shot across Louisiana’s bow a warning portending that if the state doesn’t deal with the issue soon, the federal government will.

One federal court in 2018 didn’t dispute the characterization that state courts run something akin to a debtors’ prison for defendants who can’t afford to pay the fines and fees. In a 2019 case, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower-court ruling that found New Orleans criminal court judges had erred in jailing six defendants for up to two weeks because they failed to pay fees ranging from $148 to $901 to the Judicial Expense Fund, which helps pay for local court operations. During difficult economic times, “the judges have attempted to increase their collection efforts,” the 5th Circuit opined.

“The shift from local to state financing of trial courts occurred primarily between 1970 and 1995 as the cost of operating a trial court system increased,” the National Center for State Courts draft report stated.

Louisiana is beginning now to move responsibility for hundreds of millions of dollars to state taxpayers and require a reorganization that inevitably will stir up existing fiefdoms and butt up directly against “we’ve always done it this way” thinking.

Beginning in 1973, Alabama moved to unify a judicial system seen as “fragmented, corrupt and inefficient,” only to run into a wall of municipal officials who were OK with the old system. Alabama allowed municipal courts, if they chose, to stay independent on their own dime. But the rest were put under a unified, largely state-funded system that led to statewide consistency in access, salaries, processes and equipment.

Though its beginnings bubble under the surface now, what’s being undertaken in the basement of the State Capitol is nothing short of a complete revamp of Louisiana’s judicial system over the next few years.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.