NEW ORLEANS -- After a long-brewing battle over cuts to his office, Criminal District Court Clerk Arthur Morrell claimed victory Wednesday after an appeals court ordered Mayor Mitch Landrieu to restore money that was slashed from the clerk’s budget.
In a unanimous 12-page decision, The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday that the clerk’s office is controlled by state law, therefore, the city cannot cut salaries or services without the consent of the Legislature.
Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell sued the city last October after his budget was cut about $140,000 when Landrieu ordered 3.8 percent cuts for most departments.
The city won the first round in the case when Civil Court Judge Sidney Cates IV ruled that it did not abuse its discretion by including the clerk’s office in the across-the-board cuts.
But the legal battle boiled over several times as Morrell appealed the decision, at one point shutting down a section of court for two days due to what Morrell called a staffing crisis brought on by his inability to hire new employees.
Before that, Morrell said he was forced to ask the city for emergency supplies when his office ran out of paper.
The Fourth Circuit’s ruling is retroactive, so the Morrell’s attorney believes the city is now on the hook to restore at least $140,000 to the clerk’s $3.7 million budget.
“We’re pleased with the ruling, but not surprised because the law is clear,” said Madro Banderies, an attorney for the clerk’s office.
Banderies said that a new law adopted by the Legislature on July 1 strengthened the clerk’s status as a state office.
The new law, authored by state Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, is quoted by the appeals court:
“The amounts to be appropriated and paid by the city of New Orleans for expenses, including salaries and maintenance of constitutional officers, their deputies, subordinates, and employees shall not be reduced by the city of New Orleans without the consent of the legislature.”
The appeals court decision, written by Judge Terri Love and signed Dennis Bagneris and James McKay III, states that the clerk’s status as a state office was already established by the Legislature and that the new law serves to “clarify the City’s duty to pay the appropriated funding of the Clerk’s Office as mandated by state statutes.”
The city, however, disagrees with Morrell’s interpretation of the Fourth Circuit reversal.
In a statement, city spokesman Tyler Gamble wrote, “The Court remanded the matter to Judge Cates to consider the case in light of the new legislation. The ruling does not require the city to pay the $140,000 and there is nothing to appeal at this point.”
The city’s position seems to set the stage for future legal skirmishes between City Hall and the clerks’ office.
“The City believes it has met its legal obligation to provide funding to the Clerk of Court,” Gamble wrote, “and has the authority through the City Charter to take action to ensure the Clerk's office operates within its budget.”