Court: New Orleans judges have conflict in setting fines

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal judge says state criminal court judges in New Orleans have a conflict of interest because they rely on fines and fees for court funding — raising legitimate concerns over whether the court's financial needs might affect decisions on whether low-income defendants are able to pay.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance also ruled Wednesday that judges have violated defendants' rights by failing to make inquiries on their ability to pay.

Her ruling came in a lawsuit in which defendants accused the court of running what amounts to a "debtor's prison."

Bill Quigley, a lawyer for the defendants said the ruling could affect courts throughout Louisiana. An attorney for the judges didn't immediately return a call for comment Wednesday night.

Vance did not issue an order that the practice be stopped. But Quigley said the New Orleans judges should make immediate changes. "I would expect that they're going to stop it immediately."

Quigley said he expects the judges will soon be asking the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana for more money.

In her ruling, Vance acknowledged that the judges of what is formally known as Orleans Parish Criminal District Court are not to blame for their reliance on fines and fees.

"This conflict of interest exists by no fault of the Judges themselves," Vance said. "It is the unfortunate result of the financing structure, established by governing law, that forces the Judges to generate revenue from the criminal defendants they sentence. Of course, the Judges would not be in this predicament if the state and city adequately funded OPCDC."

The Orleans judges did win a partial victory. Vance agreed to throw out part of the suit targeting a practice that the judges say has stopped: allowing the court's collections department to issue arrest warrants.

Her decision could be appealed. Meanwhile, some parts of the lengthy lawsuit remain unresolved and could be fodder for a future hearing in Vance's court.

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