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Court efficiency strategy has support of adversary lawyers, but not judges

Posted on Jan 23, 2010 in Courts, Local Issues

By Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune January 22, 2010, 11:05PM leon_cannizzaro_gallier_hall.JPGTed Jackson, The Times-Picayune archiveDistrict Attorney Leon Cannizzaro was photographed on the night of his State of the Criminal Justice System address Jan. 19 in Gallier Hall. In a rare example of cooperation between two institutions created to be adversarial, the Orleans Parish district attorney and public defenders offices believe they have come up with a way to work more efficiently: change the method of assigning cases at Criminal District Court. Although they agreed to the plan months ago and introduced it to the judges last fall, the proposal has faltered, with judges thus far unwilling to implement the new system. This week, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro upped the pressure, giving a public address before key players in the criminal justice system that highlighted the proposal as crucial to improving the prosecution of crime, Notably, the judges did not attend his speech. Although the topic seems procedural, Cannizzaro said in an interview this week he believes changing the way cases are distributed to the 12 criminal court trial is a key component of improving the prosecution of violent crime. Chris Flood, deputy director of the Orleans public defenders, agrees, saying the system Cannizzaro proposes would help his time-strapped defense attorneys better represent their indigent clients. Currently, cases are allotted to a particular judge's section only after the district attorney files charges, which may occur up to 60 days after a defendant is arrested. Under the DA's proposal, worked out with assistance from the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit that has been working in New Orleans, a case would be preassigned to a courtroom from the moment of arrest, given to a particular judge based on the day the alleged crime was committed. Because prosecutors are assigned to specific sections of court, the change would mean that a case would not get bounced from one lawyer to another. "It allows us to keep one single individual prosecutor involved with prosecuting the case from its inception all the way through the trial process," Cannizzaro said. Flood said his attorneys are compelled by state law and national standards to represent defendants from the moment of arrest. Knowing which section of court the case was heading to would allow him to assign the cases to attorneys on that basis, he said. This change would end the current reality for public defenders, who now run from section to section, trying to keep up with clients. It's a situation that sometimes seems to annoy the criminal court judges, who often question the whereabouts of a particular public defender. jon_wool.jpgJon Wool is the Vera Institute project director in New Orleans. Jon Wool, the Vera Institute project director in New Orleans, said the proposal would mean just a few public defenders would be handling cases in a particular courtroom. That means when a judge is ready to move on a case, the defense attorney would be close at hand, he said. It would be an arrangement very similar to the pre-Katrina method of public defense, when attorneys were assigned to sections of court and picked up cases after charges were filed. "It gets them closer to what they used to have: their own public defenders who worked in their sections," Wool said. In a statement issued on Friday, the criminal court judges stated that changing the allotment system would violate provisions of the judicial code of conduct requiring them to operate independently of the other parts of the criminal justice system. The judges noted that the district attorney can file a bill of information at any time, which effectively assigns the case to a court section. "To engineer the process otherwise is not the best interest of the citizens," the statement said, without further explaining the point. The criminal court judges skipped the State of the Criminal Justice System address that Cannizzaro gave at Gallier Hall on Tuesday, where the proposal was first announced publicly. In a statement issued around the same time the district attorney began speaking, Chief Judge Arthur Hunter said the judges declined to attend to avoid any "appearance of impropriety." Cannizzaro said the judges, in a letter to his office, raised unspecified concerns about due process for defendants if the allotment process was changed. Wool said he has researched various systems across the state and believes it would not violate any state or federal standards. The proposed system is used by the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, which, like the New Orleans courts, divides the duties of judges into criminal and civil jurisdictions. The system has yet to produce any "challenges or disagreements," said Jo Bruce, the judicial administrator, adding that she believes it fits the Louisiana Supreme Court mandate that allotment of criminal cases is done on a random basis. "That is pretty random in that we are pretty sure that most crimes are not committed by criminals who look up to see if a (particular) judge is on duty," Bruce said. Cannizzaro said the allotment change would allow him to break up his screening division, which now reviews police reports and talks to officers about the facts of a case. Those prosecutors decide whether to accept a case for prosecution, but then hand it over to another set of prosecutors assigned to a particular section of court. That group handles the trial work. If the system was changed, one group of prosecutors could be involved both in the initial review of the facts of a case and the actual prosecution, he said. The division between a group of prosecutors who screen cases and those who actually try the cases is not the norm throughout the country, Wool said. Along with asking the judges to change the allotment system, Cannizzaro said he plans to move all nonviolent misdemeanor cases away from criminal court to New Orleans Municipal Court. That change, which is expected to occur within weeks, the district attorney can make on his own, without the approval of the judges. The transfer of these minor cases -- many of them arrests for first-offense marijuana possession -- will help unclog criminal court dockets, Cannizzaro said. This will give judges more time to spend on the increased number of felony cases his office has been prosecuting, he said.

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