NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Amid warnings that the whole system could break down, a competency hearing for one defendant was postponed Thursday in Orleans Criminal Court. And two court-appointed doctors who haven't been paid in three months said they don't know how much longer they can work for free.
They are some of the busiest courthouse doctors in seven parishes deciding who's competent to stand trial, and they left criminal court under a cloud of uncertainty.
"Doctors Salcedo and Richoux are the experts in this field. They are the tops," said FOX 8 legal analyst Joseph Raspanti.
While the doctors are being paid for their work in six local parishes, money from Orleans has dried up due to state funding cuts. Richard Richoux, a forensic psychiatrist, and Rafael Salcedo, a psychologist, said they can't go on much longer.
"We have not been paid for hearings in June, July or August," said Richoux.
"I have children in college. It has an impact on my life," said Salcedo, a forensic psychologist with 20 years of experience at Tulane and Broad.
The Orleans judicial administrator said as it dealt with its own budget mess, the state cut the judicial administrator's budget by $100,000 three months ago, taking away money to pay doctors.
"The doctors are essential to the court doing what it needs to do. If they're not there, the people who are not mentally competent have to be released under the rules of speedy trial," Raspanti said.
In one courtroom today, one sanity commission was canceled, another went forward and judge Laurie White spoke out, complaining of the budget cuts and saying "the hits just keep on coming."
"It doesn't make sense to me, and if I can depersonalize it, having competency hearings is a constitutional standpoint of the courts," said Richoux.
Judge White declined our request to go on camera, but in court she said that paying for the court-appointed lawyers is a city responsibility under state statute.
Six miles away at the Gretna courthouse, the doctors who perform dozens of sanity hearings each month have never missed a check under a contract they have directly with the Jefferson Parish Council
"They decided to do it that way to avoid these kinds of problems," Richoux said.
New Orleans city spokesman C. Hayne Rainey said the city just got word of the outstanding bills two weeks ago, and is not in a "financial position to cover them." Many now fear that if not paid, the doctors could quit assessing and treating defendants.
"When they are not there, the system could break down or stop - or release dangerous people on the streets," Raspanti said.
The city will meet with the judges next week to try and find a solution.
They say part of the problem in finding the money is that they did not budget for the court doctor's expense, since for decades, the state paid for their work.