Tuesday, June 10, 2008

How do you restore confidence in the system, particularly one that is cloaked in judicial privilege?

That blindfold on Lady Justice is no doubt damp with tears of sorrow — and anger — now that federal prosecutors have proven two Caddo Parish judges were willing to sell their judicial power for cash.

State District Judge Michael Walker and Juvenile Judge Vernon Claville were convicted of taking bribes in exchange for lowering bonds for criminal suspects. But the public's logical question is whether such criminal behavior could have extended into the courtroom through verdicts and sentences. As one law enforcement official observed, if you're willing to cross one ethical or legal boundary, crossing the next one becomes all that much easier.

To say the guilty verdicts cast a shadow of public cynicism, if not outrage, over the criminal justice system is both sad and accurate. No longer is the issue simple judicial competence or work ethic, but that within the legal purview of two robed jurists, an uneven playing field existed that favored those with means or connections.

How do you restore confidence in the system, particularly one that is cloaked in judicial privilege? How do you rebuild trust in a process where sheer volume of cases and record-keeping can make oversight virtually impossible for the average citizen, taxpayers who have little contact with the system save for the occasional jury summons?

Rather than accountability, the current system of electing judges can promote complacency, even unchecked power: once elected, judges seldom face challengers let alone public criticism from the local bar or the law enforcement establishment. Note that federal authorities had to prosecute this corruption case.

Honest and hardworking members of the criminal justice system should feel a burning rage at this betrayal of two of their own. Consider the undercover officer who works long and risky hours to make a case against a drug dealer, the judge who diligently chops away at backlogs to provide both fair and speedy justice.

And consider it's an election year for members of the Caddo justice system.

Are there any administrative fixes that can begin repairing public trust? It would be a good question posed to judges on the stump this fall about whether Caddo judges should return to a system of rotation between the civil and criminal sections of the court. The system that year after year found Walker presiding over drug cases is in part a function of seniority. Does the expertise-through-tenure argument outweigh the public wondering if periodic shakeups on bench assignments could provide a safeguard against abuse of power?

Certainly, the issue of criminal court efficiency will get an airing as Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator makes his case for more jail space. His statistics show Caddo Correctional Center approaching prisoner overload, exacerbated in large part by so many detainees awaiting trial. An acquittal, of course, turns over a CCC bed. Convictions either send the inmate to a state prison or result in more revenue to run the taxpayer-supported Caddo prison since the Louisiana Department of Corrections pays sheriffs almost seven times more for housing its prisoners than what the Parish Commission pays for parish detainees.

Digging into the incarceration numbers will help determine if justice is grinding slow because of more aggressive policing, inefficient judges or sluggish prosecution. Or combination of all three?

For now the public owes a debt to investigators and U.S. Attorney Donald Washington's prosecution team for ferreting out this judicial corruption. Caddo Parish voters should now expect their court officials to seriously address how best to kindle public confidence and assure integrity in the system.

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