NEW ORLEANS -- The battle over New Orleans taxi industry reforms was back in court Tuesday, as cabbies packed a federal courtroom to hear arguments that could decide their livelihood.
In front of a standing-room-only crowd, the hearing before a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals panel centered on two earlier rulings by U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon, one in favor of the city, one in favor of the cabbies.
Attorneys for the cab drivers are trying to overturn city reforms approved by Fallon that call for upgrades such as credit card machines, video cameras and cars that are 10 years old or newer.
On the other side, the city is trying to block Fallon’s earlier ruling that cab licenses should be treated like property and can't be revoked for non-compliance.
The arguments in the normally regal and subdued appeals court setting were punctuated by whispered cheers and jeers of the cab drivers, many of whom have been participating in periodic protests ever since the city passed the reforms in April.
The three-judge panel – made up of judges Carolyn King, Priscilla Owen and Carl Stewart – peppered attorneys on both sides with questions. Many of the queries focused on the timetable for the reforms and how many drivers are now in compliance.
Attorneys for the city pointed out that the new higher standards are being phased in on a staggered basis, with individual license holders required to comply at the time of their annual inspections. By May 1, all of the city’s 1,600 licensed cabs are scheduled to go through the process.
But attorneys for the cab drivers noted that a majority of the taxis – 61 percent – don’t presently meet the new standards. Those drivers are subject to a loss of their livelihood if they don’t have the money for “expensive and onerous” upgrades, especially the newer cars, cab industry attorney Jack Culotta said.
“The city has created this problem by forcing the upgrades down the taxi industry’s throat in an unreasonably short timetable,” Culotta said. “These are people’s jobs at stake.”
Ike Spears, another attorney for the cab drivers, said there is room for compromise, but the city refuses to budge.
“The city refuses to negotiate,” Spears told the panel. “They refuse to come to the table when an entire industry is jeopardized.”
On the issue of whether cab licenses – known as Certificates of Public Necessity and Convenience or CPNCs – are property or privileges, there seems to be little room for negotiation.
An attorney for the city, James Garner, told the judges that there has never been a law on the books defining the licenses as property.
“The fact that the licenses have been part of successions and divorce proceedings is custom, not law,” Garner said.
But Judge King pointed out that a number of U.S. Supreme Court rulings have established that property rights can be established by customs that are widely followed over a period of time.
The three-judge panel is expected to rule before the Super Bowl.