The dozen judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court saw their dockets increasingly laden with violent felony cases in 2015, resulting in cases taking longer to conclude and a swell in the overall caseload, according to a new report from the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Meanwhile, MCC President Rafael Goyeneche blamed a downturn in felony drug prosecutions on a shift in priorities by a depleted New Orleans Police Department, pointing to a shift away from drug busts and the traffic stops that often precede them.
Drug cases made up 22 percent of the felony docket at the courthouse at Tulane Avenue and South Broad Street in 2015, down from 33 percent in 2012, the report showed.
"You're seeing drug arrests drop off a cliff," Goyeneche said.
At the same time, an increase of more than 400 new violent felony cases resulted in those crimes making up 39 percent of the court's docket in 2015, compared with 29 percent in 2012.
A recent disagreement between the City of New Orleans and the Metropolitan Crime Commission …
Those violent felonies took an average of six months to resolve, driving up the median case "processing time" in the building by nearly two weeks, to 130 days.
In the process, nine of the 12 judges saw their dockets grow larger in 2015, with many of the largest increases for judges who already had some of the heaviest caseloads.
The result was a growing disparity among judges who in theory should be handling about the same number of cases based on a system that seeks to randomize how cases are doled out, by date of offense.
Judges Franz Zibilich, Robin Pittman and Keva Landrum-Johnson led in the MCC's "efficiency" ranking, an average of the rankings for total caseload, the share of cases that have lingered for more than a year and the median case processing time for each judge.
Trailing the pack were Judges Tracey Flemings-Davillier and Darryl Derbigny. The latter saw a 34 percent increase in his caseload, according to the MCC report.
Judge Byron C. Williams, who like Flemings-Davillier inherited a sprawling docket when he assumed the bench in early 2015, ranked 10th in the MCC's ratings for 2015.
Zibilich averaged 128 cases on his docket — the fewest in the building. Derbigny's average quarterly caseload reached 416, according to the report.
The MCC report does not reflect the movement of cases in 2016, when the court's own records show that Flemings-Davillier and Williams both had steep reductions in their caseloads as of Oct. 1.
The dozen judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court last year continued to shave the …
Flemings-Davillier inherited a bloated docket four years ago from Judge Lynda Van Davis, who resigned mid-term.
With more defendants, she's seen more cases come her way from new charges on those suspects, which automatically "trail" previous serious charges to the same courtroom, Flemings-Davillier said.
Complex trials like those in the 110'ers gang murder cases, over which she presided, don't register into the MCC's calculus, Flemings-Davillier said. She cited figures that she's closed 1,795 cases since assuming the bench, often logging the highest yearly total.
"I don't think their report gives a substantive view of what really goes on in court," she said. "We know murders, rape and kidnapping take way more time. We also know a lot of matters go up to the appeals court and the Supreme Court for writs. You have to take these kinds of cases seriously."
Goyeneche said the numbers add up to a court that overall is managing to cope despite a rise in more complex felony cases that rarely get resolved quickly.
The percentage of cases handled within a year, and the median time it took to resolve them, line up with national numbers, the report found.
"In the old days, more time (to resolve cases) resulted in the judges being blamed for not working hard enough. Now, at least for nine of the 12 judges, you're seeing them keep up," Goyeneche said.
"What this report says is the judges have a more difficult task as the court's dockets are shifting to more weapons and violent felonies. But having said that, they're still doing a very good job in efficiently managing their dockets."
This story has been updated to include a response from District Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier. The report can be found at www.metrocrime.org.