BATON ROUGE – A Louisiana man has withdrawn his lawsuit regarding Ascension Parish Court's use of fees from misdemeanor convictions to cover the salary for its judge after a new state law eliminated what he saw as a conflict of interest.
Richard Williams’ attorneys from Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center had the suit dismissed after the state recently imposed a new law that puts the Judicial Expense Fund under the direction of the Ascension Parish government and its chief financial officer. No longer is the fund a direct payment for the judge’s salary and directly dependent upon if a defendant is found guilty under the new statute.
The court’s funding is now independent of the money it collects during conviction cases, which Williams felt removed the bias by the court in deciding convictions.
“The plaintiff feels that a significant contributor to possible bias has been removed,” Eric Andrew Foley, staff attorney at the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, told the Louisiana Record. “But even with this change in the law, there is still potential for bias in its implementation--which is why plaintiff's counsel will continue to monitor the situation on the ground."
Williams filed a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court Middle District of Louisiana on April 19 against Ascension Parish Court Judge Marilyn M. Lambert. Also named in the lawsuit were Court Clerk Bridget Hanna, Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeffery Wiley and Gonzales Police Chief Sherman Jackson.
Lambert is the only judge in the Ascension Parish Court and was in direct control of the court fund.
Williams filed the lawsuit after he was cited for a barking dog violation by the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s deputy. Already on probation for two other barking dog violations, Williams alleged that he couldn’t receive an impartial judgment from Lambert based on the fact that the conviction fees interfere with due process and justice, which he said is a conflict of interest.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of all residents of the Ascension Parish.
Under the old law, Lambert was allowed to disperse money from the court fund as she saw appropriate, including paying a portion ($34,684) of her annual salary of $146,584.80, a car stipend and her retirement fund. Funds were generated by a $15 conviction fee that was assessed by Lambert in addition to any other fees or fines that the court deemed should be incurred.
Foley said getting the law changed was a victory in itself.
“The law in question had been on the books, unchanged, for nearly 40 years prior to our filing this lawsuit,” Foley said. “The law was amended within three months of bringing this suit. We believe those facts speak for themselves.”