Orleans courthouse

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court is undergoing renovations including for removal of asbestos and lead in New Orleans, La. Thursday, March 2, 2017.

The judges of New Orleans' main criminal court will appeal a pair of federal court decisions that threaten to wreck their budgets by blocking them from imposing fines and fees on poor defendants.

The 12 judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court plus Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell on Tuesday filed notices that they will appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Their notice signals the start of what could be a lengthy — and potentially expensive — appellate process.

The state judges hope the federal appeals court will reject the linked decisions from U.S. District Judges Sarah Vance and Eldon Fallon earlier this month in the two "debtors' prison" lawsuits against the Orleans Parish court system.

Vance said the Criminal District Court judges could no longer order convicted defendants to fork over the fines and fees that pay for the court's clerks and office supplies unless the defendants have a "neutral forum" to plead poverty upon conviction.

Days later, Fallon said that Cantrell, like the other judges, has a "substantial" conflict of interest when he sets bails that include a fee to help finance court operations.

The state judges had remained silent since the federal decisions were handed down at the start of August. If upheld, the sweeping federal rulings could slice the court's discretionary budget by more than 50 percent.

Out of $4.5 million in revenue last year for the court's general fund, known as the judicial expense fund, $2.3 million came from charges like bail fees and court costs. That fund does not cover the judges' salaries, which are paid by the state. Some of the court's costs also are paid by the city.

The New Orleans judges could face an uphill battle in federal court, if a recent ruling from the 5th Circuit Court is any indication. A three-judge panel in February upheld a ruling against the bail system in Harris County, Texas.

The judges found that Harris County's set bail schedule did not allow defendants leeway to plead poverty or cite the facts of their cases.

Harris County's decision to fight the lawsuit in federal district court and then appeal a judgment there was expensive. In June, two years after a civil rights lawsuit was filed, the Texas county had spent more than $6.1 million on legal fees, according to the Houston Chronicle.

In New Orleans, unlike in Houston, there is no set bail schedule. Yet Fallon found that Cantrell gave short shrift to considering whether individual defendants could actually make bail, and whether alternative release conditions like a recognizance bond — which is free — would suffice to ensure their appearance at court in the future, which is the purpose of bail.

The federal judges in Louisiana also went beyond their counterparts in Texas in deciding that the local court's magistrate and trial judges had a financial conflict of interest, given the large portion of their budgets derived from fees.

Criminal District Court Chief Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson declined to comment Tuesday on the judges' decision to appeal.

Cantrell, who is the father-in-law of New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of the Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit law firm involved in bringing both lawsuits, said he was "confident that every court to review these issues will continue to agree that the judges are violating long-standing constitutional precedent."

An attorney for the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, which helped bring the lawsuit against Cantrell, said the appeal would harm poor defendants and taxpayers.

"We are disappointed that the judges would choose to appeal ... rather than simply providing the bare-minimum procedures necessary to hold people in jail before trial," said MacArthur lawyer Eric Foley. "Because the Legislature has long shirked its duty to adequately fund the courts, the costs of this continued litigation will likely fall to the city, which means the taxpayers of Orleans Parish."

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432