Covering Louisiana

Jan 23, 2014 5:41 PM by Melinda Deslatte/AP

February deadline looming for report on judges

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - More than two years ago, lawmakers asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to determine if the state has too many district and city court judges.

But lawmakers don't know if the Supreme Court will meet the February deadline with detailed suggestions on where to cut or at least how to shuffle existing judgeships - or will instead ask for further study.

Judge Robert Morrison, the Supreme Court's chief adviser on such issues, said Thursday that the state doesn't have enough data in hand to make sound recommendations.

Morrison told the committee overseeing the judgeship study that he'll recommend that the high court delay any proposals and hire a national consulting firm that works with state courts on research and comparative data.

A representative of the consulting firm estimated such a study for Louisiana would take between 12 and 15 months.

"I am regretful that we couldn't have started on this sooner and perhaps had something that we could have some confidence in, but I personally do not feel that I can in good faith make any kind of recommendation," said Morrison, chairman of the Trial Court Committee on Judgeships for the Supreme Court's Judicial Council.

The Bureau of Governmental Research, a government watchdog organization, says if the court recommends further study, it will stall the elimination of unneeded judgeships for years.

The state constitution prohibits the shortening of a sitting judge's term, and the next judicial election is in November. BGR says 80 percent of parish judgeships will be on the ballot. If lawmakers don't vote on changes before then, judges will be starting new six-year terms under the existing structure.

Janet Howard, executive director of BGR, questioned why the Supreme Court and its advisory committee would wait until only a month before the report is due and two months before the legislative session begins to consider hiring outside research help if there had been lingering concerns about the quality of its own data and review methodology.

"It's unfortunate. It looks like there will be no decision in a timely fashion," she said.

Lawmakers asked for the judgeship review in 2011 to address population shifts, particularly since Hurricane Katrina, and to consider the changing caseloads in districts.

The Bureau of Governmental Research, which has filed a lawsuit alleging the judgeship review has violated state open meetings laws, said that based on the Supreme Court's workload formula, the state has too many judges. In New Orleans, the organization says the parish's seven courts have 45 judges but only need 20.

Morrison said the methodology that the Supreme Court had been using was designed to look at recommendations of whether new judges should be added in some areas. He said it wasn't designed to determine whether positions should be eliminated.

Judges asked the study committee Thursday not to rush into recommending cuts.

"We're just asking that you don't make a rash decision," said Lafayette City Court Judge Douglas Saloom. "Let's get you some true numbers."

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