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.

bill sasser
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.

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.

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.

• • •

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."

Indeed, running for reelection this fall, Parker will face voters irate at a system that many believe has failed to address rising crime in the city. In the past two years, officials have released dozens of suspects arrested for violent offenses after overworked prosecutors failed to bring charges against them within 60 days.

Last year, a citizens' group called Court Watch began issuing reports on the performances of district attorneys, judges, and police. Much of the criticism has centered on the embattled district attorney's office. Like the adjacent courthouse, the DA's office was flooded with more than four feet of water during Katrina. In the months afterward, prosecutors were temporarily housed in a gift shop and a bar before moving into a high-rise near City Hall.

With longstanding turmoil in his office, District Attorney Eddie Jordan was forced to resign in November after he was also saddled with a $3.7 million judgment in a racial discrimination suit. Many hope that the interim appointment of Keva Landrum-Johnson, a veteran prosecutor, will bring new order.

Judges are also under scrutiny. A recent Metropolitan Crime Commission report detailed the large backlog of cases. The study ranked Parker in the bottom third of 11 judges in courtroom efficiency – in early 2007 his docket had swelled to more than 300 cases. Parker bristles at the finding. "If you want to judge a person's career, you can't look at just the six-month time period after he finally got his courtroom back," he says. "People all over New Orleans, including myself, are frustrated – at wits' end – with local, state, and federal government, with the insurance companies. Like a lot of people, my wife and I lost everything we owned in Katrina. People are frustrated and feeling down and out and were hoping that New Orleans would be back to normal by now."

• • •

For Parker, respect for the law runs as deep as the Creole patois he sometimes uses to lighten the mood in his courtroom. This morning, the judge calls forward a 16-year-old who has been brought to court not by deputies but by his grandmother. He was stealing things from the house, sneaking out at night. "Your grandmother has seen what's out on that street and so have I – drugs and guns," Parker tells the teen, after ordering him to stand up straight. "I've sat on this bench and looked at so many photos of young men who have been shot in the head. Do you know what that looks like?"

After explaining in graphic detail, Parker asks the boy what he wants to be in life. "A lawyer?" he says. "You can be a lawyer, you can be a judge, you can be the district attorney if you want, but not doing what you're doing now."

At the judge's invitation, the young man sits in the jury box, watching lawyers argue the cases of prisoners in orange coveralls and handcuffs. "There are some kids you can look at and see they're at a crossroads, and there's others you look at and see that they've already decided to be gangstas," Parker says later. "Hopefully I made a difference in that one kid's life."

Some believe the criminal-justice system has, finally, turned a corner. Parker, for one, points to improvements in the DA's office, including a new violent offenders unit.

"We've overcome a lot of hurdles in resolving some of these old cases," says Assistant District Attorney Payal Patel, a member of the unit. "The biggest problems we've had since Katrina are with evidence and witnesses." Karen Longon, a retired tax lawyer who volunteers for Court Watch, agrees. "I see more witnesses showing up and cases moving faster," she says.

At day's end, Parker looks at the clock on his chamber wall. It's 3 p.m. "I have two good hours left in me today," he says to the clerk. "Tell the DA's office to bring me some more cases."

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