SADOW: Louisiana Judiciary Could Use Paring, Reorganization

A recent decision made by a little-known panel of elected Louisiana judges illuminates how, with reorganization of the state’s judiciary, taxpayers could save around $100 million annually.

Last month, the state’s Judicial Budgetary Control Board voted to give stipends in most instances representing almost 8.5 percent of a judge’s salary, out of an internal fund not dependent on taxpayer dollars that has accumulated a significant surplus, to judges on the bench as of Jul. 1. With this decision, which doesn’t appear to follow legislative intent to dole out periodically to active judges this bonus it authorized, if a judge does not serve the entire fiscal year he still receives the whole amount, even as this appears to be an unconstitutional donation of public funds.

The stipends came from the judiciary appropriation bill, following on pay raises in recent years recommended by the special panel created to evaluate these and legislative approval. It had been conditioned upon completion by a district or appellate judge of a workload study, but Republican Gov. Jeff Landry cast a line-item veto on that requirement, stating that the judiciary should evaluate its own members and the study would be completed with over half the fiscal year over.

He made debatable points, but the practical impact removes leverage from obtaining confirmation of what appears obvious: Louisiana has too many judges chasing too few cases. A Legislative Auditor report last year noted that Louisiana had significantly more judges per capita, 6.1 per hundred thousand, than states of similar populations, with its 219 lower-court judges 40 more than the next highest and its 53 intermediate-court judges almost four times the next highest. Keep in mind as well that Louisiana has been losing population while the peer states included all are gaining.

And it would appear the case workload is declining as well. The Public Affairs Research Council put out a brief last year noting appellate court filings fell by half from 2004 through 2022. Logically, this should reflect the trend to some degree of district court filings, but would not capture the entirety of a judge’s work, in excluding administrative tasks that likely have gone in the opposite direction over that time span.

Capturing this information could be accomplished with the study encouraged by the original conceptualization of the stipend. The select legislative committee studying the issue of judicial reorganization last year asked the five appellate circuits to have their judges voluntarily complete eight-week timesheets about what they did with the assistance of the leading national research clearinghouse, but four of the chief judges involved refused (the only one who assented now is running for a district in the newly-reapportioned state Supreme Court).

Chances are such a study would show generally many judges with time demands significantly below national norms, with considerable variance among circuits and districts. This, then, would argue for reorganization and paring of judgeships, which likely would put a number of judges out of a job that they definitively would oppose. With studies already revealing pay is about average although the state is one of just three that throws in supplemental pay, that accounts for roughly a ten percent salary boost, it’s little wonder judgeships, especially as rarely does an incumbent lose once elected, are highly prized in the state’s legal community and lawyers would want as many as possible.

Not that downsizing would be easy. The Constitution prohibits decreasing the term of office, retirement benefits, and compensation of a judge, so changes would have to occur after six- and ten-year terms expire that sets the stage for a cumbersome transition.

But, given the state’s judiciary soaked $188 million this year out of the general fund, an analysis of workload could lead to halving the number of district judges and quartering the number of appellate judges that would achieve pro rata savings of up to nine figures, which would help taxpayers significantly. Perhaps we shouldn’t hold our breath on this happening, given the employment of about 30 percent legislators is in the legal profession and the most common next elective job out of the Legislature for a legislator is winning a judgeship, but it would be the right thing to do.



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