Federal judges delivered a one-two gut punch to the New Orleans criminal court system this month, declaring that judges have an inherent conflict of interest both when they set bail amounts and when they impose court fees that pad their budgets.
The twin rulings against Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell and the 12 Criminal District Court trial judges portend major changes at the courthouse — and problems for its coffers.
But they also present a rare opportunity for reform: The advocates who brought the lawsuits hope the decisions will end the courts’ longstanding practice of raising revenue on the backs of the poor.
Yet what happens next is anyone’s guess. U.S. District Judges Sarah Vance and Eldon Fallon’s decisions were long on constitutional law principles and short on practicalities. Barring a successful appeal, it will be up to the state judges themselves to usher in change.
Roughly $2 million is at risk, nearly half of the court system’s so-called discretionary budget. The question is whether the judges will dismantle the current, “user pays” system, or whether they will manage to tweak their policies just enough to satisfy the U.S. Constitution and the federal judges who cried foul.
And while the federal lawsuits targeted only New Orleans, the rulings could ripple across court systems around Louisiana that generate income in a similar fashion.
“It’s uncharted territory, really. There’s not a clear path forward,” said Alec Karakatsanis, an attorney who helped bring both lawsuits against the Orleans court system. “What’s clear is they can’t keep doing what they’re doing.”
City Councilman Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney and chairman of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, said he had been expecting the court decisions for months.
“I hope this doesn’t encourage us to try and come up with clever workarounds, but really engage in figuring out if this system is working the way that we need it to work,” he said.
A hole in the budget
A sword has been dangling over the state judges’ heads since September 2015, when attorneys at Karakatsanis’ nonprofit law firm, Civil Rights Corps, as well as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, brought a lawsuit against the judges of Criminal District Court.
The dollar amount fluctuates from year to year, but fines and fees imposed after convictions now generate about $1 million a year in revenue for the New Orleans court system, or a quarter of its discretionary budget.
The court’s revenues are split between a restricted fund, which goes toward expenses like judges’ salaries and administering the jury pool, and a general or discretionary fund, which covers expenses like staff salaries and office supplies.
In 2017, the court’s total revenue was $8.7 million, which was split almost evenly between the two funds. The state supports the restricted fund, which means court fines and fees do not directly pay judges’ salaries. But $2.3 million of the $4.5 million general fund came from charges like bail fees and court costs. The court spends the lion’s share of that general fund money, 80 percent, on salaries and benefits for staffers like minute clerks and law clerks.
The plaintiffs in the federal lawsuits said the fines and fees assessed against defendants violate a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said it was unconstitutional to jail people solely for failing to pay court costs, unless it can be shown that they willfully avoided doing so when they were able to pay.
The judges’ legal and financial jeopardy only mounted in June 2017, when civil rights firms brought a second lawsuit, this one against Magistrate Judge Cantrell. That suit targeted bail fees on the same grounds. Suddenly, another $1 million chunk of the court system’s budget was in danger.
It’s not just the court itself that could be gashed. According to a January 2017 analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice, several other criminal justice agencies rely heavily on bond fees and court fines that are split with the courts.
For instance, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office took $614,000 from bond fees and conviction fees in 2015; the Orleans Public Defenders received $493,000; and the Sheriff’s Office got about $561,000.
The judges themselves have expressed frustration with the practice of using fines and fees to support the criminal justice system. They know that the defendants who pass through their courtrooms are overwhelmingly poor. But they have argued that the federal courts were not the proper venue to change a system created by the Louisiana Legislature.
“Plaintiffs do not like the fact that the judges have statutory discretion to assess and collect (fees) and operate and administer the court,” the judges said in one legal filing. “In short, a person complaining about these issues should go to Baton Rouge and not to federal court.”
Days after a federal judge ruled that the fines and fees system at…
Authored by Sophie Ryan