The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against New Orleans-based judges twice in one week recently when it comes to how they set fines and fees and how they set bail.
On August 23, 5th Circuit Judge James Graves Jr. ruled that New Orleans-based state district court judges have a conflict of interest when deciding whether or not a defendant is able to pay fines and fees. The conflict arises because those monies go into a fund that is controlled by the judges and makes up a significant portion of the court budget. In his ruling graves noted that while the court recognizes that the temptation exists, they “do not in any way suggest that the Judges actually succumbed to that ‘temptation.'”
The decision is the result of a lawsuit filed in 2015 accusing New Orleans criminal court judges of running the equivalent of a “debtors’ prison.” In the original ruling, New Orleans-based U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance ruled that New Orleans judges had violated their defendants’ rights by failing to make proper inquiries into whether defendants could pay their outstanding fines and fees before jailing them. While the judges did not appeal that portion of the ruling, they did appeal the section where Vance ruled they must provide a “neutral forum” for determining whether defendants are able to pay.
A few days later, 5th U.S. Circut Court of Appeals handed down a similar ruling stating that state magistrate judges in New Orleans have a conflict of interest when setting bail for the same reasons – because those bail fees help fund court operations. Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell filed the appeal after a lower court ruled in favor of two state criminal defendants. One of those defendants was jailed for two weeks while he attempted to raise money for a bail bond, and the other was held for a month.
Writing for the three-judge panel that denied the appeal, Judge Gregg Costa stated, “Because he must manage his chambers to perform the judicial tasks the voters elected him to do, Judge Cantrell has a direct and personal interest in the fiscal health of the public institution that benefits from the fees his court generates and that also helps allocate.” The opinion found that the bond fees make up as much as 25 percent of the amount spent by the court.
In a statement to AP News, Eric Foley, an attorney with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center said that the rulings upheld a “common-sense decision.”
“It is past time for money to be eliminated from the Orleans Criminal District Court’s consideration of pretrial release of presumptively innocent people,” Foley said.
Jenn Bentley is a freelance journalist and editor currently serving as Editor-in-Chief of Big Easy Magazine. Her work has also been featured in publications such as Wander N.O. More, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, Examiner.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_