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Lawsuit Challenging Unconstitutional Conflict of Interest in Ascension Parish Court Spurs Legislative Reform

Judge No Longer Controls Expense Fund Made up of “Conviction Fees”

BATON ROUGE, La. – In response to passage of Act 612 by the Legislature and its signing into law by Governor Edwards in June, the MacArthur Justice Center on Tuesday filed a request in federal court to dismiss its class action lawsuit challenging an unconstitutional conflict of interest in the funding scheme of the Ascension Parish Court.

“We are pleased that the Louisiana Legislature has amended the law to remove control of the Ascension Parish Court’s judicial expense fund from the Judge of Ascension Parish Court,” said Eric Foley, staff attorney at the New Orleans office of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center.  In April, the nonprofit, public interest law firm filed the class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana on behalf of all those appearing before the Ascension Parish Court as criminal defendants.

In Ascension Parish Court, people convicted of misdemeanor crimes—including traffic and municipal ordinance violations—are charged a fee of $15. This “conviction fee” is deposited into the court’s Judicial Expense Fund and used to pay part of the Judge’s salary, retirement, and benefits. The Judicial Expense Fund also pays the salaries of most of the Parish Court’s staff and other operating expenses. This is part of a broader pattern in Louisiana in which courts are not fully funded but forced to rely on a hodgepodge of fines and fees levied against the citizens who appear before them.

Prior to the MacArthur Justice Center’s lawsuit and consequent change in the statute, the judge had exclusive control of the Judicial Expense Fund, creating a conflict of interest that violated the Constitution’s Due Process Clause. Act 612 puts the fund directly under the control of the Ascension Parish government and its Chief Financial Officer. The amended law also obligates the Parish to fully fund the court’s operations through either the Parish’s General Fund or the Judicial Expense Fund.

“While we see this as a step in the right direction toward ensuring a fair and impartial judiciary for Louisiana, we are going to be watching the situation on the ground very closely to make sure the statute in fact makes the court’s funding independent of the money it collects through convictions,” Foley said. “Judges should never be placed in a position to consider their court’s finances or their own salaries when determining someone’s guilt or innocence.” 

View a copy of the lawsuit as filed and the amended statute HERE»

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