Despite confusion, Orleans Criminal Court remains open

Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell at Wednesday's hearing
Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell at Wednesday's hearing
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The clerk of New Orleans criminal court backed away Wednesday from a publicist's statement that he would shut down a section of court because of insufficient money from the city, but he continued to complain that Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration is failing to provide enough money to adequately staff his office.

"I hired four people, put them to work for two weeks, training them, only to find out that the administration will not pay them," clerk Arthur Morrell told a panel of the City Council at a budget hearing.

Andy Kopplin, the chief administrative officer under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said all aspects of local government have had to cut back since the council and Landrieu had to trim an inherited $100 million budget deficit in 2010.

"Because he was consistently over his appropriation," Kopplin said of Morrell, "I stopped approving the addition of personnel because that was furthering his budget deficit."

It was the latest political dustup over the financially strapped city's efforts to fund an expensive criminal justice system that is under federal scrutiny. Landrieu and Sheriff Marlin Gusman also are at odds over money for the Orleans Parish Prison, the local jail that faces court-ordered reforms to stop violence and security breaches.

The city also must find millions to fund a federal court agreement calling for major reforms of the police department.

Morrell found little sympathy when he went before the council's criminal justice budget committee. Chairwoman Susan Guidry echoed administration statements that the clerk has overspent his city allocated budget for three years in a row. And she questioned why Morrell has turned down administration offers to send experts into the clerk's office to look for ways to improve efficiency.

He said none had any experience in criminal court. "How are they going to come there and advise me how to save money?" he asked.

Part of the dispute involves how much authority the city has over Morrell's budget. Morrell is elected to preside over a local division of the state court system, but the city has legal obligations to provide funding. Morrell has taken the matter to a state civil court, accusing the administration of "arbitrary and capricious abuse of discretion" in funding the clerk's office. He lost at the district level but told the council members the case is on appeal.

A statement issued on Morrell's behalf Tuesday night said he would shut down a section of criminal court because a deputy clerk had taken sick leave and there was no backup deputy clerk available.

"I am not a judge. Therefore I do not have the ability to shut down any section of Criminal Court," Morrell said Wednesday in a statement issued by public relations consultant Allan Katz.

Katz said the Tuesday night statement alluding to a shutdown was the result of his own rewrite of a draft statement from Morrell that said court was not being held because there were no deputy clerks available for the Criminal Court Section A.

Court was held in Section A on Wednesday although some cases were stalled. "I didn't have a jail list from the court clerk," Judge Laurie White told council members Wednesday afternoon.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)