Louisiana raises judicial salaries

Louisiana legislators voted overwhelmingly last week to raise the salaries of state judges by 2.5% in the coming year. If funds permit, judges would continue to receive equivalent pay raises for each of the four years after that as well.

The source of the funding struck me as noteworthy:

The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed to cover the first year of pay raises for judges — at an estimated cost of $1.8 million — from its substantial cash reserves. It’s unclear whether judges will continue to tap reserves or turn to state taxpayers to cover future raises, which could cost as much as $9.5 million per year if all five annual pay hikes are awarded.

I thought that judicial salaries typically came from funds controlled by the legislature. It’s quite interesting that salaries are to be paid (at last initially) out of the state supreme court’s “substantial” independent funds.

Judge to appoint special master to assist in remedy phase of Louisiana judicial election case

Almost five years ago, a local branch of the NAACP in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, sued state officials in federal court, arguing that the state’s “at-large” system for electing judges systematically disenfranchised minority voters. After a trial in 2017, the federal district court agreed with the plaintiffs that the existing election scheme was unconstitutional. But the parties could not agree on the appropriate remedy, so the judge has asked both sides to suggest candidates for a special master, who will assist the judge in crafting an appropriate remedy.

“The parties didn’t agree on a remedy and the Legislature didn’t pass a remedy, so now it’s the court’s obligation to come up with a remedy,” [NAACP attorney Leah] Aden said on Saturday. “The court isn’t an expert in drawing maps. Judge Dick wants to do everything by the book, so she’s going to hire someone who’s familiar with drawing maps to aid her as an expert to evaluate the maps that we put up and potentially draw their own map. This person is basically a technical expert.”

A federal judge gave the state Legislature the first opportunity to remedy Terrebonne’s voting system, but the only proposed bill during the 2018 session died in committee.

This has been a fascinating case for observing how one sovereign’s judiciary (the federal courts) addresses fundamental issues pertaining to another (a state court system). It will be equally interesting to see how the final resolution plays out.

Federal court upholds Texas judicial elections

A challenge to Texas’s state judicial election scheme brought by Latino voters has been rejected by a federal district court. The lawsuit, brought by La Union Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), asserted that Texas’s system for statewide appellate court elections diluted the Latino vote in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. But U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos rejected that theory, noting that the election outcomes were better explained by (perfectly legal) dominance by the Republican Party.

The result stands in contrast to a ruling in Louisiana last year, in which a federal court found the at-large judicial election system in Terrebonne Parish to violate the U.S. Constitution. One important difference may be that the Louisiana voting scheme called for a parish-wide vote even though each elected judge presided over a specific district. By contrast, the appellate courts in Texas do not have judges preside over specific regions.

Some thoughts on the Wendy Vitter nomination

I am quoted toward the end of this NOLA.com story on the nomination of Wendy Vitter to be a federal district judge in the Eastern District of Louisiana. As I pointed out in the story, the EDLA is down two full-time district judges and desperately needs people to step in and roll up their sleeves: the district has the second-highest number of pending cases in the country, and the sixth-worst number of trials completed during the last fiscal year.

The story emphasizes that many observers are happy with Vitter’s nomination — she has more than 100 criminal trials under her belt as a state prosecutor, and generally seems to be well-respected within the New Orleans legal community. Still, detractors raise three objections to her nomination: her lack of federal litigation experience, her marriage to a former U.S. Senator, and her Catholic faith.  None of these should derail her nomination.

Continue reading “Some thoughts on the Wendy Vitter nomination”

New Orleans judge: “We do not feel secure” in own courthouse

A Louisiana state judge has publicly stated that she and her colleagues “do not feel secure” in the New Orleans criminal courthouse, citing a dwindling police presence and lax security measures at courthouse entrances.

Previously, at least three unarmed deputies usually were in place to supervise significant numbers of inmates, keep order over audiences and issue subpoenas upon judges’ orders. Recently there have been only two per courtroom, or on rare occasions one.

Officers of the court — such as attorneys and clerk staff — also generally are waved through metal detectors at the court’s two public entrances without being subjected to a search of their person or belongings. [Judge] Flemings-Davillier said that, too, needs to change.

“We are asking the sheriff’s office to reinforce the rules that we already have,” she said, “because they have been lax and we have had some security issues.”

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has stated that it is unaware of any specific threats or incidents that should make courthouse personnel uneasy.

Federal court: at-large voting for Louisiana judicial elections is unconstitutional

Earlier this year, I reported on a federal civil rights trial in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana (the Baton Rouge area).  The plaintiffs alleged that the system used to elect judges in the state’s 32nd Judicial District was unconstitutional in that it disenfranchised minority voters.  In particular, plaintiffs alleged that the state’s “at-large” voting system, meaning that judges are chosen through a parish-wide vote even though each judge presides over a specific district.  The bench trial concluded at the end of April.

On Thursday, Judge Brady issued a 91-page ruling, concluding that the use of at-large voting in Terrebonne Parish unconstitutionally dilutes the voting power of black voters.  The actual remedy will be determined later through a series of conferences with parties and counsel.

The full story and reaction is here.

Louisiana judge accused of helping pretrial services company extort poor defendants

The ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center have filed a federal lawsuit in the Middle District of Louisiana, alleging that a Baton Rouge pretrial services company required hundreds of state inmates to pay “fees” far in excess of their court-ordered bail before they could be released from jail.  The lawsuit further alleges that the pretrial services company, Rehabilitation Home Incarceration (RHI), was actively assisted by state judge Trudy White. RHI apparently supported Judge White’s 2014 re-election bid.

Although RHI has no formal contract with the state court system, Judge White allegedly ordered more than 300 criminal defendants to complete RHI’s services in 2015 and 2016–without ever inquiring into each defendant’s financial status. RHI subsequently charged the defendants hundreds of dollars in fees for its services–including a $525 “signup fee.” As a result, the suit alleges, hundreds of defendants were forced to languish in jail while friends and family scrambled to raise the needed money.

At this point, these are only allegations.  But we will follow this lawsuit closely.  The caption is Ayo et al. v. Dunn. et al., Case No. 3:17-cv-526.