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A day in a New Orleans courtroom offers a window into the city's embattled justice system

Judge Julian Parker rules with a firm gavel and a Creole-spiced sense of humor in trying to reduce a backlog of 300 cases.

By Bill SasserCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 27, 2008

Bench marks: Judge Julian Parker rules with a firm hand and a Creole sense of humor in the Orleans Parish criminal district court. He operated for the first two years after hurricane Katrina without his own courtroom.

bill sasser


New Orleans

While the flood waters of hurricane Katrina followed no laws but nature's own, Judge Julian Parker rules again in Courtroom G in Orleans Parish District Criminal Court. For a year and a half after the calamitous Katrina, Mr. Parker shared a courtroom with another judge – or didn't have one at all.

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Now he's dispensing justice again from behind his wine-dark wooden bench, even though some basic courthouse amenities – including the elevator to his chamber – still don't work. On his docket today: 13 drug charges, six felony assaults, two murders, and a dozen other offenses ranging from car theft to burglary, not to mention his homilies about life and the law.

"You need to get back into school and get into sports," he tells a 17-year-old charged with possession of marijuana, who has spent two months in lockup because his family couldn't raise $250 bail. "You look like you would make a good second baseman." He releases the teenager with a future date for a hearing.

In fact, of nearly 30 cases on the judge's docket this day only a handful will be concluded. The rest are continued.

While the wheels of justice turn slowly in all courthouses, perhaps no part of New Orleans civil government has struggled more since hurricane Katrina than its criminal-justice system. Indeed, persistent crime – and the related flow of criminal cases through the court system – are often cited as symbols of how far New Orleans still has to go to rebound from the country's costliest natural disaster.

Much of the judicial stasis has been understandable. After Katrina, courthouses were damaged, files lost, and lawyers, judges, and witnesses fled the state.

Today, while courtrooms are functioning again and many agree the system is operating more smoothly, critics maintain it still has a long way to go. They blame an overworked prosecutor's office, judges – almost anyone involved with criminal justice. Each day Courtroom G becomes a microcosm of the progress and pitfalls of a court and city laboring to return to normalcy.

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Parker isn't happy. Several delays this morning stem from prosecutors being unprepared, a witness who apparently changed her mind about testifying, and continuing disorder in a court bureaucracy still recovering from Katrina. "I've heard this in four different sittings in the past month – 'we can't proceed with this case because we left our file on our desk!' " he says in response to Assistant District Attorney Angel Vernado's request for another continuance.

Another case is delayed because documents can't be located – a recurring problem since the evidence room in the courthouse basement flooded when the levees broke. "Let me tell you something, when I was an assistant DA, we worked 60 hours a week and I tried 76 felony jury cases in 12 months," Parker tells Ms. Vernado. "We did it without cellphones, without e-mail – high tech for us was an IBM Selectric."

His rebukes aren't limited to the prosecutors. "Say 'yes, sir' – not 'yah,' not 'yo dog.' You say, 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir,' when you answer me," he tells a defendant arrested for a parole violation. "Show me respect and I'll show you respect."

Parker is a former assistant district attorney and federal prosecutor who was elected to the bench in 1996. He has spent nearly all his adult life working for the court and grew up himself in a tattoo-tough neighborhood of New Orleans.

One of the court's more outspoken and controversial jurists – he has been called the "hanging judge" for his harsh sentences – he prides himself on running an efficient courtroom. In recent months, he has upbraided prosecutors for their delays – in August issuing an arrest warrant for an absent prosecutor.

"I've developed a reputation, unfortunately, of being a jerk," Parker says later in an interview in his chamber. "But sometimes the lawyers aren't telling me the truth about why they can't present their cases, and my docket is a reflection on me, not a reflection on them."