Orleans Parish Criminal District Court

Advocate staff file photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court

In a ruling that could wreak financial havoc on the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, a federal judge said Wednesday that judges there have an inherent conflict of interest in determining whether defendants can pay the fines that pad the court’s budget.

Finding in favor of a handful of individuals who sued the court system two years ago, U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance declared that state judges have routinely violated the constitutional rights of defendants by jailing them after they failed to pay fines imposed for criminal convictions.

Several of the plaintiffs in the case were jailed for days or longer without receiving a hearing on their ability to pay. One woman said she was arrested even though she had just given birth and was struggling to afford food.

Vance said the imposition of fines and fees on defendants convicted of crimes is not itself a conflict of interest. However, she said, it becomes one when the same judges are in charge of deciding whether defendants actually can pay those fines and fees.

“So long as the judges control and heavily rely on fines and fees revenue … the judges’ adjudication of plaintiffs’ ability to pay those fines and fees offends due process,” Vance wrote.

It may be months before the practical effects of the 79-page ruling become clear. But the decision could upend the “user pays” system that New Orleans uses to finance its criminal courts, a system that is mandated by state law.

Criminal District Court judges rely on about $1 million a year from fines and fees imposed upon those found guilty to fill out their budget. Much of that money is collected from the same poor defendants who are appointed public defenders because they cannot afford private lawyers.

The judges can appeal the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If that fails, and if they can't find a creative way to maintain the system now in place without running afoul of Vance's decision, the judges could be forced to go begging to the City Council or the Legislature for money. 

Vance found that the judges have never taken ability to pay into account before jailing people for failing to pay. But even if they did consider ability to pay, she said, the conflict with their reliance on those fines and fees remains unconstitutional.

In her ruling, Vance noted that the current funding structure was imposed from above.

“This conflict of interest exists by no fault of the judges themselves. It is the unfortunate result of the financing structure, established by governing law, that forces the judges to generate revenue from the criminal defendants they sentence,” she said.

Since the lawsuit was filed in 2015, the Criminal District Court judges have taken a number of measures in an effort to thwart it. They stripped the court’s collections department of the power to issue warrants by itself, and they wrote off more than $1 million in fines and fees.

Yet there are still indications that judges issue arrest warrants for those who fail to pay fines and fees, Vance said. Moreover, the court system has never committed to asking about defendants’ ability to pay before jailing them.

Meanwhile, the court still arrests defendants for failing to pay restitution to victims. Defendants can also be arrested for missing court dates related to their fines and fees, Vance noted.

Vance said that the judges’ “corrective efforts are so riddled with exceptions and omissions as to cast doubt on the sincerity of their actions.”

“Understandably, the judges would like to see this lawsuit go away. But they have not done enough to show institutional change,” she said.

While noting that Vance’s decision would take some time to digest, an attorney for the plaintiffs hailed her findings.

“It’s a monumental ruling," said Alec Karakatsanis, the executive director of Civil Rights Corps, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit law firm. "For so long, the court system’s been operating in New Orleans in violation of the most basic principles of justice and human dignity.” 

The lawsuit from Karakatsanis and local lawyers is just one of several targeting court systems across the country over fines and fees. Other suits have been filed on similar grounds against the Orleans Parish Magistrate Court and the Gretna Mayor's Court this year.

An attorney for the Criminal District Court judges did not return a request for comment Wednesday.

However, the judges have issued dire warnings in the past about what would happen if they lose fines and fees as a revenue stream.

At one City Council hearing, Judge Franz Zibilich said the revenue from fines and fees “probably represents fully a fourth of the monies that we need to be operational. If we are handcuffed in that particular regard," more money is "going to have to come from someplace.”

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.