Fourth Judicial District Court reopened to the public earlier this week, ending a limited court closure that lasted more than two months and left the court with a case backlog and uncertainty about its financial health.
As the court’s operations ramp back up, its ability to generate revenues through the imposition of fines, fees and court costs could take months to catch up with the revenues lost since the court closed on March 16.
“We don’t know what the shortfall will be,” Fourth Judicial District Court Chief Judge Daniel “Danny” Ellender told The Ouachita Citizen. “It’s kind of early to know what it’s going to be.”
On Monday, the district court resumed its civil and criminal hearings with certain social distancing restrictions, including a limit on the number of people in each courtroom and the requirement that each person wear a mask. The Ouachita Parish Clerk of Court’s office also reopened to the public with the ability to file legal documents online or in-person for a fee.
By resuming court, judges across the state — including those at the district court —stand to fortify their personal finances, too. That would be the case since judges receive a monthly pay supplement of $900 in addition to their salaries. Judges at the district court are paid a salary of at least some $152,000 a year. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, judges’ monthly pay supplement was knocked to $400 a month until clerks of court began receiving new legal filings and imposing fees for those filings.
The amount paid to state court judges, including those at the district court, in a monthly pay supplement were detailed in letters sent to judges across the state.
The Ouachita Citizen recently obtained an April 21 letter sent to all state court judges by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. In her letter, Johnson offered several suggestions that judges ease the financial burden on defendants in court in spite of the financial troubles that could arise for courts that implemented the suggested actions.
For example, Johnson recommended possibly “waiving, suspending, assessing community service, or adjusting monthly payments in response to changes in a defendant’s circumstances” such as a loss of a job. She also suggested suspending court-supervised probation fines and fees as well as assessing late penalties on defendants for not making payments.
“Consider suspending due dates for full or installment payment of criminal fines, costs, or fees until 180 days past the end of all pandemic emergency orders, whether or not a payor requests the suspension,” Johnson wrote.
In her letter, Johnson admitted that the state’s courts relied “heavily on fines, costs and fees to operate the court system.”
“We believe these suggested actions will help to mitigate the financial burdens of many struggling citizens, improve access to the courts, and reduce the likelihood of detention for failure to pay,” Johnson wrote.
The next day, judges across the state received a letter from Supreme Court Justice James Genovese notifying them that their monthly pay supplement would be reduced, a letter obtained by The Ouachita Citizen shows.
“As you are well aware, this Coronavirus has stymied most everything,” Genovese wrote in his April 22 letter. “Our judicial system has come to a screeching halt, except for emergency civil, criminal and juvenile matters. The Judges’ Supplemental Compensation Fund is no exception and is experiencing the brunt of this shutdown.”
The Judges’ Supplemental Compensation Fund is funded only through filing fees collected by clerks of court.
“Filing fees are down; thus, the JSCF has experienced a considerable drop in funding,” Genovese wrote. “As a result of this drop in funding, the JSCF can no longer financially support its present $900.00 a month supplement, as its reserve is rapidly being depleted.”
The $900 a month supplement for each judge in the state was dropped to $400 a month and will remain reduced until July, according to Genovese.
“Hopefully, this reduction in supplement will be temporary, and there will be a return to the norm in due course,” Genovese wrote.
Meanwhile, Ellender said the district court did not have any estimates or projections of lost revenues resulting from the COVID-19 crisis.
“We don’t have numbers,” Ellender said. “We’re assessing those as we go.”
The district court’s fiscal year ends June 30. Under a Supreme Court order, no civil or criminal jury trials shall take place before June 30, further inhibiting a possible revenue source for the courts during the current fiscal year.
“Once we make our way through this, we can ramp back up and collect those fees,” Ellender said.
Ellender noted the case backlog was two-months long despite some remote hearings and virtual hearings conducted in criminal and civil courts during the lockdown.
Few civil matters were taken up during the lockdown, and in criminal court, defendants who were not incarcerated or who were out on bond have not visited court, according to Ellender.
Speaking of the case backlog, Ellender said, “It’s added pressure, but we can’t just go back to normal operations. Not until we feel safe to do so.”
The district court issued guidelines earlier this week to the public, asking each individual to wear a CDC-approved face covering, avoiding court if exhibiting symptoms of an illness, among other recommendations.
“We’re trying to limit the number of people in the courtroom. They’re having to comply with social distancing,” Ellender said. “Our expectation is that people wear a mask and be expected to have one to protect themselves and everyone else.”