MikePerlstein / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- State legislative auditors are deep into a review of the Orleans Parish criminal and civil courts.
The audit came after 4 Investigates exposed nearly $2 million spent on supplemental insurance over the past five years by Criminal District Court alone. Civil District Court judges spent more than $300,000 over the same period.
'I don't believe it's appropriate for public dollars to be used by any members of the judiciary to buy supplemental insurance. They're state employees.'
In the face of that audit requested by Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche after our stories aired, the civil court judges gave up their supplemental health benefits. And criminal court just recently voted to suspend the benefits as it awaits the state's ruling.
But according to documents obtained by 4 Investigates, the appellate court that oversees those New Orleans district courts pays for the same insurance from the same private company, Exec-U-Care.
The Louisiana State Court of Appeal Fourth Circuit, operating out of their courthouse in the French Quarter, spends $20,000 to $40,000 a year on the extra coverage, according to their records.
'There's an example of how a practice has basically traveled from one court to the next,' Goyeneche said. 'And where it started really isn't important.'
But state law doesn't treat all judges alike. The law that limits district judges to the same basic health insurance as all other state employees doesn't mention the appellate courts.
Loyola Law professor Dane Ciolino says the two-tiered system raises its own questions.
'That statute doesn't apply to appellate judges and the Louisiana Supreme Court justices. Why that's the case?' Ciolino said. 'It could be just a legislative oversight. It could be the conscious decision by the Legislature.'
We couldn't find any record of legislative intent on these judicial perks. But the Fourth Circuit explained that the Exec-U-Care benefits are not available to all 75 court employees, just the judges and the court's top four administrators. The money comes from an expense account funded by filing fees.
Chief Judge Charles Jones cited a statute that allows surplus fees to be used to 'defray the expense of employment benefits for court employees, including judges.'
'From a policy standpoint it certainly makes sense that higher court judges are paid higher salaries than lower court judges. But I'm not sure as a policy matter it makes sense to treat appellate judges different for purposes of benefits,' Ciolino said.
Goyenche said the Louisiana Supreme Court should establish one standard policy.
'If it's good for one of the courts - the district court judges - there should be uniformity in all of the laws,' Goyeneche said.