NEW ORLEANS -- Everybody cheered when the soil was turned Tuesday to start construction on a $32 million juvenile justice complex. But those cheers could not muffle a brewing controversy over the number of juvenile court judges who will be housed in the building.
Judge Ernestine Gray said she was blindsided to learn that blueprints call for four courtrooms, even though the court has six judgeships.
"I stand here a little disappointed in that we did collaborate, but it was only on yesterday in that I found out that we were only building a court for four judges and we have six," Gray said.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu has quietly been mounting an effort to shrink the court based on caseload studies showing the court is overstaffed. Louisiana Supreme Court data shows the city could get by with as few as one juvenile judge. Landrieu revealed that he will propose a reduction of two or three seats at the next session of the Legislature.
"My legislation is designed to create a comprehensive, thoughtful, well-designed criminal justice system based on the data that's available to us," Landrieu said. "And all of those things indicate that we need far fewer judges in juvenile court than we have now."
But one behind-the-scenes City Hall strategy has already been defeated. In a November letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal, Landrieu asked the governor to delay the election to fill a juvenile judge vacancy. But Jindal quickly shot him down, setting the election for this spring.
Now that the battle lines are drawn, we will have to wait and see just how many juvenile judges move from this old court into the new one when it opens in 2014.