Jamaica vs. work? Judges head for beach
With the New Orleans criminal justice system in shambles and authorities struggling to ease a backlog of about 6,000 cases, at least two Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges have jetted off to Jamaica for a week of continuing legal education at a deluxe resort, according to courthouse administrators.
Judges Charles Elloie and Calvin Johnson were off the bench last weekend in Negril, attending a course run by a New Orleans for-profit company called Jamaican Sunset CLE, according to staffers in the judicial administrator's office and various clerks scattered about the largely dormant court building at the corner of Tulane Avenue and Broad Street that still bears signs of hurricane damage.
The duo's Caribbean getaway, which records show could cost more than $4,500 per judge, is unfolding against a chaotic backdrop, with officials throughout the criminal justice system acknowledging it is in crisis but divided about a possible solution. Criminal District Court Chief Judge Raymond Bigelow and District Attorney Eddie Jordan are publicly debating whether more criminal judges should be hired to cope with the court's logjam, while New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley has expressed frustration with the crippled system and the U.S. attorney's office has said it is making an effort to step into the breach and take over some prosecutions. Criminal District Court was closed for months after stewing in Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters. Parts of it remain shuttered and in dire need of repairs, and enormous, sprawling air-conditioning ducts surround the building.
Jordan, speaking at a June 28 press conference shortly before the judges headed for Jamaica, painted a bleak picture. "Obviously we cannot try all the cases that are to be tried this year with the judges that we currently have and the schedule they have today: six judges holding court every other week and only holding court from basically 9 to 5."From Florida to Jamaica
It is unclear how many judges from other city courtrooms, most of which are in better shape than Criminal District Court, were also in Jamaica. The trip is slated each summer just a month after many judges spend a week in Sandestin, Fla., on another continuing legal education trip. Among the confirmed attendees were State Supreme Court Chief Justice Pascal Calogero, the only Supreme Court or appeals-level judge to attend Jamaican Sunset CLE, according to the office of those courts.
Traditionally, a handful of Orleans Parish Civil District Court judges head to Jamaica, and in some years judges at traffic or municipal court also have attended. The Civil District Court confirmed that Judges Herbert Cade and Kern Reese were in Jamaica, although their offices said the jurists were not scheduled to attend the entire conference and were expected back early this week.
Judge Michael Bagneris, who was in Sandestin last month and whose expense reports show him to be a faithful participant in the Jamaica week, also was there, according to his staff. Indeed, Bagneris, who has been a Jamaican Sunset faculty adviser since at least 2004, according to company literature, appears particularly fond of tropical conferences, having attended them in Hawaii, Cancun, the Bahamas and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He has been adding Jamaica to his annual itinerary since 2002, records show.'Absolutely not the time'
State law requires judges to obtain a minimum of 12.5 hours of continuing legal education each year, and the total offered at Jamaican Sunset in 2004 and 2005 was 12 hours, according to brochures. Lawyers and judges older than 65 are exempt from the requirements, which means both Calogero and Elloie do not need any hours.
Rafael Goyeneche, the executive director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, has been a harsh critic of practices at Tulane and Broad, but he defends continuing legal education for judges as a solid idea with tangible benefits for the public. Further, with only six courts in working order in the criminal court building, the departure of some judges may be less of a blow than it would in other times, he said.
Yet the message a trip to Jamaica sends is atrocious, Goyeneche said.
"This is absolutely not the time," he said. "At a time when the criminal justice system is struggling and resources are limited, there are better ways for judges to get their CLE than at some beach resort."
The fact that Elloie, whose alacrity at reducing bail has made him a case study in some crime commission reports, and Calogero do not need to go to Jamaica at all is particularly galling, Goyeneche said.
"Well, they do have to go if they want a vacation and they don't want to pay for it," he quipped.
Some judges who have gone to Jamaica in the past skipped the event this year, including Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judges Carolyn Gill-Jefferson and Ethel Simms-Julien, both of whom were in Sandestin last month. Simms-Julien's staff answered inquiries emphatically Friday.
"She heard some 30 cases on the bench this morning, and she will not be taking any trip to Jamaica," said Myrna Shelton, Simms-Julien's minute clerk and office manager.Donors to judges
New Orleans lawyers Keith Doley and Ammon Miller are the directors of Jamaican Sunset CLE, which was incorporated in 1996, according to the Louisiana secretary of state's office. In the past two weeks, Doley begged off an interview twice and then did not return repeated phone calls. Miller could not be reached for comment. He left his office at 1010 Common St. without leaving a forwarding address earlier this year, the lobby staff said last week.
Campaign finance reports show that over the years, the two lawyers have contributed thousands of dollars in small increments to the civil and criminal court judges who comprise the bulk of their Jamaican Sunset clients. Contributions from lawyers to judges are commonplace in the legal community.
The judges' expense reports do not make clear how much profit Doley and Miller realize through Jamaican Sunset. The trip is paid for with tax money or out of the various court judicial expense funds, public collections amassed through fines and court costs set by the bench. Registration for the trip's continuing legal education in 2005 was $500, a 25 percent jump from the year before, records show.
On top of that, participants are charged for a lodging package that has increased 20 percent since 2003 and now tops out at $2,770 for the full week, records show. In past years, the judges and their guests have chosen among accommodations at the Treehouse Hotel, the Grand Lido Resort and the Seasplash Resort, all in Negril.
As a general rule, Louisiana judicial guidelines prohibit international travel by judges to any conference not associated with state or national bar associations. The Supreme Court occasionally expands the definition of noninternational travel, however, and Jamaica, Mexico and Canada are now considered the equivalent of domestic locations.Bill totals thousands
The 2005 Jamaican Sunset CLE was canceled because of Hurricane Dennis. Consequently, the most recent full year for which records are available is 2004. Those show that only judges in Orleans Parish attended the Caribbean CLE, and that the total cost for the 16 judges, half of whom had attended the Sandestin CLE the month before, ran to $44,507.92, or an average of $2,781.74. Not every judge stayed for the full week, so there was a wide difference in cost, with Orleans Parish Traffic Court Judge Robert Jones' bill of $4,905.50 being the most expensive and Civil District Court pro-tem Judge Paula Brown the cheapest at just $500, records show.
Of the posh Negril destinations offered by Jamaican Sunset, records show the most popular with the judges is the Grand Lido, an all-inclusive resort that includes meals in the $2,770 package, hotel staff and travel agents said. In fact, the Jamaican Sunset literature for the Grand Lido in 2004 boasted that the package includes "all meals and snacks," plus "wine with lunch & dinner" and "unlimited premium-brand cocktails."Per diem perk
Nevertheless, records show most traveling judges also pocket a per diem of as much as $115 while studying in the tropics, and some of them sandwich their travel days on either end of the trip and thus collect a total of $920 in per diems during the Jamaica junket.
The Louisiana Supreme Court sets the state's $115 per diem for judges on the road, a figure considerably higher than federal employee per diems and one the judges collect without having to show receipts proving that the money actually was spent. The difference between Louisiana's generous per diem and the more austere per diem available to federal judges -- which in Negril now stands at $26 a day for meals and incidental expenses, according to the U.S. State Department -- is considered taxable income by the Internal Revenue Service.
In 2004, Gill-Jefferson, Simms-Julien and Reese were all guests at the Grand Lido yet took home per diem totals of $920, $688 and $920, respectively, records show. When asked about this in writing last year, Civil District Court spokesman Walt Pierce noted that not every judge stayed in an all-inclusive spot, but that in any event they were entitled to the per diem.
"The judicial expense fund does not have an internal policy regulating per diem request for lodging at all-inclusive hotels," Pierce wrote. "While the Grand Lido is an all-inclusive hotel, the judges attending the conference were not required to eat meals on the property and had the option of eating at other venues."
Exact costs and attendance for this year's trip could not be determined last week. Jamaican Sunset CLE did not issue refunds for the canceled 2005 conference, and scheduled participants were reportedly able to roll over their reservations to this year.
Copyright 2006, The Times-Picayune Publishing Corporation
From: James Varney and Jeffrey Meitrodt, "Jamaica vs. work? Judges head for beach Meanwhile, cases continue to pile up," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, July 9, 2006,