By Matt Sledge | Nola.com | January 3, 2020
Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell announced Friday that he is going nuclear in his long-running budget dispute with the city of New Orleans.
In a move that will essentially cripple the rest of the city’s criminal justice system, he said nearly all of his office’s employees will be furloughed beginning Monday.
As a result, about 80 employees will go without pay, jailed inmates will not be able to post bail, and Criminal District Court operations could grind to a near-halt unless workarounds are found.
“Because our office has not been funded according to the law in the last budget that’s been approved in the City Council, we have no choice but to take action and try to get the money that’s needed,” Morrell said in a hastily called news conference late Friday afternoon.
Morrell had asked for $4.6 million, but the city awarded him just $4 million in its 2020 budget. That is actually an increase over 2019, but Morrell claimed the difference still left him with “no choice” but to shutter his office.
Morrell said the city’s latest budget didn’t include an increase in personnel, which he says is his most dire need.
He acknowledged that he didn’t inform his employees of the drastic step of furloughing them until Friday. “I don’t think it would have been proper to scare them that early,” Morrell said. “We were hoping that this would be settled. But it hasn’t been settled.”
Morrell’s move was immediately denounced as a “publicity stunt” by one longtime observer of the city’s criminal justice system.
“He can run that office for most of the year on what the city’s given him. He’s got plenty of time to pursue the difference in the court system,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “You don’t go to DEFCON 5; you don’t push the launch button if you don’t have to. And I think this is overkill. This is more about trying to create some publicity and less about what the real issue is.”
Goyeneche called the gambit “an ill-advised maneuver that is affecting the public safety of virtually the entire city.”
Friday’s announcement was the latest round in one of the longest-running grudge matches in city politics.
For years, Morrell has complained that the city is falling short of its duty under state law to pay for his office at the level he deems necessary. Former Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Mayor LaToya Cantrell have largely turned a deaf ear to his complaints, however.
While most city expenditures rose from 2010 to 2019, the city’s funding for the clerk’s office dropped from $4.8 million to $3.7 million in inflation-adjusted dollars.
In response, Morrell has repeatedly sued the city in state court, sometimes winning orders for more money. Meanwhile, he’s twice cut back the hours at the office which processes bail paperwork, which was once open 24 hours a day to ensure that defendants could be released at any hour.
In her 2020 budget proposal, Cantrell asked the City Council to dedicate $4 million to Morrell’s office, essentially bringing it back to its 2018 funding level after a cut in 2019.
The council gave Morrell that slight increase in funding. But on Friday he denounced the budget as illegitimate and said he should have been given his entire $4.6 million request.
He said the budgets can’t be compared because his doesn’t include operating costs. Meanwhile, he said he can’t run his office for part of the year at the level he believes is necessary because the city pays his deputy clerks directly.
Morrell said he had met with city officials eight times to try to come to a solution.
The clerk of court is independently elected by New Orleans voters. While he doesn’t report to City Hall, he relies on the city to provide funding for his office.
Morrell said all but a handful of his employees will be furloughed.
Beau Tidwell, a Cantrell spokesman, issued a statement late Friday blasting Morrell’s maneuver.
“The clerk of court received a budgetary increase for 2020, and those funds are available for his staffing and operational needs,” the statement said. “It is the expectation of this administration and of the people of New Orleans that all public servants, including the clerk of Criminal Court, honor their commitment and do their jobs.”
Meanwhile, Morrell’s move seemed to catch other officials in the criminal justice system off-guard. The Criminal District Court judges weren’t notified until Friday, and the chief of the Orleans Public Defenders said his office hadn’t been notified at all.
Chief Judge Karen Herman was set to meet with Morrell on Monday.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to resolve the situation and we can continue to operate business as usual,” she said.
Defendants, attorneys and witnesses should still show up for court as scheduled on Monday, Herman said.
Derwyn Bunton, the head of the Orleans Public Defenders, said he was watching the situation “with concern.” He added that he hopes to “avoid anything that’s going to harm our clients and our community, including unnecessary delays and remaining in jail.”
A spokesman for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office said it will do what it can to address the lack of personnel at the clerk’s office.
“Bail can only be posted with the clerk under Louisiana law,” said Blake Arcuri, the agency’s general counsel. “Nonetheless, the Sheriff’s Office will work cooperatively with our criminal justice partners to ensure that all orders of the court, including bail orders or court releases, are honored and executed in a timely manner.”
Separately, Morrell’s move could affect qualifying for the April 4 election. That process runs from Jan. 8 to 10. It’s usually handled by Morrell’s office, but he said he has asked Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin to take over in his stead.
Another local court remains shuttered for unrelated reasons. Municipal and Traffic Court will remain essentially closed, with the exception of first appearances, because of last month’s cyberattack on the city’s computer systems.
In a news release Friday, the city said that while all of the court’s computers have been restored, the case management system that connects them is still offline. According to the city, Municipal and Traffic Court is still advising those with court dates not to come to court “until further notice.”