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Fifth Circuit: Practices of Orleans Parish Judges in Collecting Fines and Fees Violates Due Process

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the decision of a district court that granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs in a § 1983 suit alleging that the practices of the judges (“Judges”) of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court (“OPCDC”) violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Plaintiffs Alana Cain, Ashton Brown, Reynaud Variste, Reynajia Variste, Thaddeus Long, and Vanessa Maxwell (“Plaintiffs”) were all former criminal defendants in the OPCDC who had pleaded guilty to various offenses. The Plaintiffs were assessed fines and fees ranging from $148 to $901.50. They were subsequently arrested for failure to pay their assessed fines and fees, and they spent from six to fourteen days in jail.

The 12 defendant judges are the current judges of the 12 sections, designated A through J, of the OPCDC, who have exclusive control over the Judicial Expense Fund (“JEF”) as established by La. Rev. Stat. § 13:1381.4.

Approximately one-quarter of the monies deposited into the JEF comes from the Judges’ collection of fines and fees.

Money from the JEF is spent by the Judges on, inter alia, salaries and employment benefits of court personnel (excluding the Judges), the cost of professional liability insurance, court room repairs, cleaning, and legal conferences and education. Each of the Judges is allocated $250,000 per year for personnel salaries and $1,000 for court costs from the JEF.

When the collection of the fines and fees is reduced, the OPCDC has difficulty meeting its operational needs, leading to a reduction of staff salaries and leaving some positions unfilled. During these times, the Judges increase their collection efforts.

Prior to the initiation of the lawsuit, the Judges delegated the authority to collect the fines and fees to a Collections Department that had the authority to arrest persons who were delinquent in their payments on their fines and fees. These persons were held in jail until someone made a payment on their behalf. After the suit was filed, the Judges withdrew the Collection Department’s authority to issue warrants, recalled all active warrants in issue, and cancelled almost $1 million in court debts. The district court granted summary judgment to the Plaintiffs on numerous claims, of which the Judges appealed only one: that the Judge’s authority over both fines and fees revenue and ability-to-pay determinations violated the Due Process Clause.

The Fifth Circuit observed, it is axiomatic that a “fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process.” In re Murchison, 349 U.S. 133 (1955). The general rule is that officers acting in a judicial capacity are disqualified if they have an interest in the controversy being decided. Tumey v. State of Ohio, 273 U.S. 510 (1927). In Tumey, the mayor of an Ohio village presided over a “liquor court” that allowed the mayor to impose fines on defendants and imprison them until the fine was paid. Half of the money generated from the fines was placed into a fund over which the mayor had the authority to disburse. The Supreme Court explained, “Every procedure which would offer a possible temptation to the average man as a judge to forget the burden of proof required to convict the defendant, or which might lead him not to hold the balance nice, clear, and true between the state and the accused denies the latter due process of law.” Id. And in Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Lavoie, 475 U.S. 813 (1986), the Supreme Court applied the principles of Tumey to a sitting justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, establishing the principles applies to judges in addition to the average man acting as a judge. Additionally, proof of actual influence upon the judge is unnecessary; all that is required is a situation that “would offer a possible temptation to the average ... judge.” Id.

Based on those principles, the Fifth Circuit determined that the practices of the Judges “crossed the constitutional line” and upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment. The Judges of the OPCDC had exclusive authority over how the JEF was spent; the Judges had to account for the OPCDC’s budget; and the fines and fees made up a significant portion of the Judge’s annual budget. Consequently, the “temptation” was too great, the Court ruled.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the district court. See: Cain v. White, 937 F.3d 446 (5th Cir. 2019). 

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