Orleans Parish judge says 2010 was post-Katrina benchmark in case filings

Alejandro de los Rios Jan. 11, 2011, 10:00am


Orleans Parish Civil District Judge Kern Reese said that civil case filings which declined proportionately to New Orleans' post-Katrina population loss, stabilized in 2010.

And in a court system that depends on litigants' filing fees to run day-to-day operations, the benchmark is important.

Reese, who heads the court's Finance Committee, said he expects that as the city's population rebounds, so will litigation.

"As population returns -- and I think we're just under 400,000 now -- and as business improves, that's going to generate more litigation," he said. "Or that's my hope, anyway."

New Orleans lost one-third of its population after the devastating hurricane of 2005.

Reese said he looks back to 2004, the last year before Katrina, for proper context as to the court's financial state. Back then, the court averaged more than 18,000 filings per year, from which the court would generate approximately $16 million in revenue.

Filing fees go directly into the court's Judicial Expense Fund, which pays for salaries and essential services.

The number of new suits filed in Orleans in 2010 dropped by about four percent from 2009 figures.

Post-Katrina years, filings have been:

2005 - 13,572
2006 - 14,395
2007 - 16,267 (this year had 3,483 hurricane suits filed)
2008 - 13,309
2009 - 13,553
2010 - 13,164

In 2005, court records show that up until Katrina made landfall, there had been 11,658 civil case filings - a pace that could have equaled or eclipsed the previous year's figure.

But in recent years, the court's budget has been dramatically slashed, not just because of reduced court filings in Katrina's wake, but also because of Act 621, passed in 2006. The act consolidated aspects of Orleans Civil and Criminal Courts and cut filing revenue for the Civil Court by about 40 percent.

"For us it was kind of a perfect storm of revenue diminution," Reese said. "We had diminished filings and by the statute we lost 40 percent of the revenue from the Clerk's office, which was the biggest revenue generator for the Judicial Expense Fund."

The decrease in revenue has affected the court across the board, he said. Staffs had to be cut, supports services had to be reduced and workers who survived the cuts had to be cross-trained to take on more responsibilities.

Some of the cutbacks have had troubling effects on the court.

Reese said that cutting the court's technology staff was one of the main contributing factors to an October computer crash, which resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of real estate records.

The crash, which has crippled the real estate market in New Orleans and has left the clerk's office scrambling to recover files, was a result of an under-trained technician installing improper software, Reese said.

Moving forward, though, judges have learned valuable lessons about how to administer funds, Reese said.

Speaking about the "economies of scale," Reese said that the court has learned to adjust better to a decrease in filings since Katrina.

In 2009, Reese said, the court ran a $2.8 million deficit. That figure was reduced to around just $12,000 in 2010.

"2010 was a difficult year," he said. "We bit the bullet and did what we had to do. Because we did that we're starting to come out of that now, we're starting to stabilize. It taught the court that we have to be mindful of properly managing the funds we have available."

Expenditures have been a topic of significant public interest recently as the court has pledged to use money from the Expense Fund to overhaul the court's computer systems, including backup servers, to ensure that a crash like the one in October doesn't happen again.

Capital upgrades and maintenance are "a substantial priority," Reese said.

As to whether the numbers will ever return to pre-Katrina levels, Reese said that it's a slow process. The number of Hurricane Katrina and Rita-related filings after those storms represented a "bubble," which has now burst, he said.

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