Orleans Parish Criminal District Court’s backlog of cases fell slightly last year despite an increasing workload driven by prosecutors who accepted hundreds more cases, a new report finds.
But a defendant’s time in legal limbo still can vary wildly depending on which judge they receive by the luck of the draw, according to a study released Monday by the Metropolitan Crime Commission, an independent watchdog.
While the average felony case zips to resolution in 58 days in Judge Franz Zibilich’s courtroom, it lingers for 281 days in Judge Darryl Derbigny’s section.
“The report as a whole sends a very positive message about how this court is performing under a very difficult docket composition,” said Rafael Goyeneche III, the commission’s president.
Still, he added, “there’s a couple judges that aren’t keeping up with their peers.”
The commission’s regular "judicial efficiency" report, last released in January 2017, aims to track how long victims, witnesses and defendants must wait for the final disposition of a felony case.
Although the court’s 12 judges all receive roughly the same number of cases under a random allotment scheme, there is no set timeline for how long a case can remain on their docket. Each judge has a say in nudging a case along to dismissal, diversion, plea deal or trial, although some factors are beyond his or her control.
Orleans Parish lags far behind its suburban neighbors in case-processing times, which the crime commission attributes in part to the greater percentage of complicated crimes of violence and weapons charges in the city.
Prosecutors accepted 4,743 cases in 2017, a significant jump from the 4,045 cases logged the year before. Crimes of violence and weapons charges accounted for 50 percent of the 2017 cases.
Goyeneche said he was impressed that the average number of open felony cases in the court as a whole actually dropped slightly, from 2,957 pending cases in 2016 to 2,920 pending cases in 2017, despite the greater workload.
“The docket is tough. It’s been getting tougher. And yet, when you look at the case-processing time, the court has improved their efficiency. That’s not done by accident,” Goyeneche said.
Chief Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson said the report showed widespread effort among all the judges.
“It reflects the effort that we all put in to keep our dockets moving, despite the influx of cases that we are getting,” she said.
In 2017, Zibilich once again led the pack in New Orleans for overall "judicial efficiency," a combination of the number of cases pending in his court, the percentage of cases pending for more than a year and the median case-processing time.
|2 (tie)||Karen Herman|
|2 (tie)||Robin Pittman|
|6||Byron C. Williams|
|9 (tie)||Benedict Willard|
|9 (tie)||Arthur Hunter|
Meanwhile, Derbigny came in last overall and on every individual measure tracked by the commission.
While the American Bar Association recommends that all felony cases should close within a year of a defendant’s arrest, almost half of the felony cases in Derbigny's court have been pending for more than a year.
The report praised two judges for ratcheting up their sections’ efficiency. Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier, who ranked at the bottom of the last report, cut down the number of cases open for more than a year in her court from 44 percent in 2016 to 37 percent in 2017.
"Judge Davillier continues to work extremely hard on case processing and efficiency, despite many obstacles within the system, while ensuring public safety and addressing a multitude of complex legal and constitutional issues presented in many cases on a daily basis," Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik said in a statement on Flemings-Davillier's behalf.
He also noted that she closed the most cases in 2016.
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Judge Paul Bonin, who inherited a monster caseload when he took office in January 2017, managed to cut down the median case-processing time by 75 days. He inherited his docket from a series of ad hoc judges who sat in after longtime Judge Frank Marullo left the bench.
Still, Bonin’s section stayed stuck in second-to-last place for overall efficiency.
“I don’t have any doubts that he’s continued to improve the way that docket moves forward, because he’s changed the culture. The same thing for Judge Davillier,” Goyeneche said.
On the other hand, while Judge Arthur Hunter's average processing time remains just above the court average, his overall efficiency rank dropped from seventh to ninth. Goyeneche said that may be a sign that he is letting more complicated cases linger while dispatching easy ones.
The commission’s rankings have often come under fire from individual judges and others who contend that they cannot measure the quality of the judges' jurisprudence.
“Oftentimes, doing justice right takes time,” Daniel Engelberg, chief of trials for the Orleans Public Defenders, wrote in a letter last year. “The efficiency scores do little to capture the hard — and, yes, sometimes slow — work of ensuring justice is done right.”
Goyeneche said he does not advocate sacrificing quality for speed. Still, he added, he has not heard of any defense attorneys accusing Zibilich or other top performers of violating defendants' rights.
Engelberg also noted that under Louisiana law, it is ultimately prosecutors who have control over a docket. The law states that the DA determines “whom, when, and how he shall prosecute.”
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The report makes no effort to track the number of prosecutors assigned to each section of court, or how often they turn over. Both factors can affect a section’s docket, since multiple prosecutors can speed a docket along, while fresh faces will need extra time to become familiar with old cases.
Bonin said there are several factors feeding into the speed of a docket — not just prosecutors but also defense attorneys. Still, he said, a judge has a role.
“You’re still an important player. Your attitude about cases getting to trial is very important, and I think that’s helped us get to where we’re going,” he said.
Bonin said that while he was disappointed that his section has not moved higher in the rankings, he appreciated the report's data.
“We had about 350 cases on our docket when I got here, and we have to date brought that backlog down to only 15 cases still pending from that time before I was here,” he said. “You never like to be the kid last in the class, or next-to-last in the class, but it is what it is.”
Derbigny did not respond to a request for comment. Goyeneche said he should do something to trim a docket that “exploded” from an average of 413 pending cases on any given day in 2016 to 542 cases in 2017.
“If you are a defendant that’s in jail waiting for your day in court, and you’re unfortunate enough to have been allotted to Judge Derbigny’s court, you’re going to be sitting for a long time waiting for your day in court,” he said.