NEW ORLEANS — Criminal court judges in New Orleans have a conflict of interest when they are faced with deciding whether some defendants are able to pay fines and fees that partially fund their court’s expenses, a federal appeals panel has ruled.
The decision from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court ruling that the New Orleans-based state district court judges must provide a “neutral forum” for determining whether a defendant can pay.
The state judges had argued they were not swayed by their court’s financial interest when they determine whether a defendant was able to pay a fine or fee.
But the 5th Circuit panel noted that the fines and fees in question go into a fund controlled by the state judges and make up a significant portion of the court budget. The ruling, written by 5th Circuit Judge James Graves Jr., said the circumstances pose a temptation that could influence the state judges’ decisions — although Graves added a footnote: “In so concluding, we do not in any way suggest that the [j]udges actually succumbed to that ‘temptation.’”
The appellate decision was dated Friday and became public Tuesday. It came in a 2015 lawsuit filed by people who said they were unconstitutionally jailed for failure to pay fines and fees. That suit accused New Orleans criminal court judges of running what amounted to a “debtors’ prison.”
Among the plaintiffs was Ashton Brown, age 21 when the suit was filed, who said he had court fees arising from a conviction in a 2013 theft case and a later drug possession case. After the drug case was resolved, he was returned to jail because of his prior unpaid debts, and he languished there for weeks until his family could scrape together a $100 payment, the lawsuit said.
U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance in New Orleans eventually ruled that the New Orleans judges had violated defendants’ rights by failing to make inquiries on their ability to pay. The judges did not appeal Vance’s finding that failing to make inquiries into defendants’ ability to pay before jailing them was unconstitutional.
They did appeal her finding that the judges needed to provide a “neutral forum” for determining whether they are able to pay.
The judges could seek a re-hearing or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. A court administrator did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Graves, nominated to the 5th Circuit by President Barack Obama, wrote for a panel that also included Judges Catharina Haynes, a nominee of President George W. Bush, and James Ho, nominated by President Donald Trump.