Jul 192018
 
Danae Columbus

Danae Columbus, opinion columnist

With qualifying currently underway for clerk and other positions in both First City and Second City Courts, good government advocates are questioning why Orleans Parish still operates two separate courts with two clerks and constables that basically perform the same function – handling small claims.

Mergers and consolidation of government offices is certainly the trend in America today. This scenario has successfully played out in New Orleans and Louisiana with the merger of our criminal and civil sheriffs, consolidating seven assessors into one, and folding the registrar of mortgages and conveyances into the clerk of civil district court. Suzie Terrell eliminated her position as Louisiana Commissioner of Elections a decade ago.

Under the auspices of Civil District Court, First City and Second City Court were enshrined in state law by Article VII, Sections 90-92 of the 1921 Louisiana Constitution. The constitution called for one small claims court to operate on the “left” bank of the Mississippi and one to operation on the “right” bank, also known as Algiers. The constitution initially set the judges annual salary at $3,600. The clerk was paid $1,500. The maximum judgment was $100 per case.

According to Orleanscdc.com, First City Court’s current jurisdiction includes any civil lawsuit with a claim up to $25,000, small claims suits up to $5,000, and residential and commercial evictions where the rental fees do not exceed $3,000 per month. Second City Court’s jurisdiction mirrors that same language.

What makes the two courts different? One is located in the Civil District Court building at 421 Loyola Avenue and is thought to mostly serve residents living on the East Bank of Orleans Parish. The other is located in the recently renovated historic Algiers Courthouse and usually serves residents residing on the Westbank. In 2014 legislation was presented by then Sen. David Heitmeier that gave Second City Court additional jurisdiction over “appeals by any person aggrieved by a decision of the traffic court concerning a traffic violation enforced by the city of New Orleans automated traffic enforcement system.”

In full disclosure, this author is currently a plaintiff in two cases on the First City Court docket, both of which were allotted to the Second City Court judge. The Clerk’s staff has been excellent. The judge’s staff is always helpful. There is never a dull moment around First and Second City Court. The dockets stay full. The courtrooms are crammed with litigants of every description – most of whom represent themselves – trying to resolve issues important to them. Plaintiffs and defendants line the halls waiting on a chance to plead their case. When evictions are heard, it is often heartbreaking to see litigants who are unable to make the basic payments necessary to keep a roof over their heads or those who are complaining about rental units that do not meet code. The judges are patient, striving to be human but tough at the same time as they sift through conflicting testimony to deliver justice.

Yet the question remains, would the citizens of New Orleans be better served by a consolidated small claims system? Could a consolidated system be more efficient, better allocate available resources and still deliver the quality of service citizens deserve? Would litigants still receive access to justice?

It seems likely that a consolidated system would be located on the East Bank. Westbank residents probably would not be pleased to travel across the river to file their small claims and evictions, although they currently make that trip for all other court matters. The Algiers courthouse is also a popular wedding venue for couples looking to tie the knot quickly. A consolidated system might also eliminate one clerk, one constable or even a judge. The citizens of Algiers benefit from having a full complement of elected officials who can advocate for their needs across the board. Any reduction of that strength caused by consolidation would probably not be appreciated.

When the 1921 Louisiana Constitution was drafted, New Orleans was the largest population area in the state and yet very isolated. There was no 1-10, no Airline Highway, no Mississippi River Bridge. The historic River Road was the only way to travel to Baton Rouge. The Algiers and Gretna ferries and the Huey P Long were the only way to get to the Westbank. Now almost 100 years later, transportation options abound. E-filing is becoming more common. Even if there was a groundswell of public support for consolidation – which there is not – the process would require legislative action and a vote of the people. Yet consolidation might be part of a long-term plan for our small claims system. It’s never too early to begin the conversation.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN BRINGING HER PRE-PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN TO NEW ORLEANS

Though U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren has not officially announced her candidacy for President yet, she is barnstorming the country developing critical relationships and resources that will serve her in 2020. After Warren’s speech at the Netroots Nation conference here, Warren will be hosted by Congressman Cedric Richmond for a free public event, “A Conversation with Elizabeth Warren,” Friday, August 3 at Dillard University. Doors open at 4:30 p.m. with the program beginning at 5 p.m. The event is co-hosted by several politically active organizations including IWO, Les Femmes PAC, Emerge, the New Orleans Coalition, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the National Coalition of Negro Women, and NOW. A reception will follow the event.

ALLIANCE FOR GOOD GOVERNMENT TO HOST LEGISLATOR OF YEAR MIXER JULY 20

Just after qualifying closes on Friday, the Alliance for Good Government will host their annual Legislator of the Year Mixer at Southport Hall, 200 Monticello Street in Jefferson. This event is an opportunity for candidates to “mix and mingle” with Alliance members in advance of the endorsement process. New Orleans Assistant City Attorney Dan MacNamara chairs the Alliance’s New Orleans chapter.

Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman-elect Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

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