Watchdog: Reforms needed in New Orleans' bail-setting court
By KEVIN McGILL
Oct. 18, 2017
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A New Orleans judge often interferes with criminal defendants' rights to counsel by sharply limiting the time public defenders spend with newly arrested defendants making their first court appearance, a court watchdog group said in a report released Wednesday.
Court Watch NOLA, a nonprofit group that uses volunteers to observe and report on New Orleans criminal courts, issued the report, which focused on New Orleans' magistrate court, where criminal defendants make early appearances and where bails are set.
The report had several recommendations for reform, including one calling for state district court Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell to permit adequate, confidential attorney-client consultations before bail is set.
"CWN observers have personally observed Magistrate Judge Cantrell informing public defenders they have only five minutes to speak to each defendant; at times Magistrate Judge Cantrell has decreased that time limit to two minutes," the report said.
It said Cantrell has also been observed setting bail for a defendant with no attorney present.
The criticism comes months after a civil rights group filed a pending federal lawsuit accusing Cantrell of unconstitutionally setting high bonds for indigent defendants.
The Court Watch NOLA report calls for several reforms in New Orleans' magistrate court, where criminal defendants make early appearances and where bails are set.
Magistrate court is presided over by Cantrell, who is elected, and four commissioners appointed by Cantrell and 12 elected criminal court trial judges.
Among the watchdog group's recommendations was a call for the 13 elected judges to develop written procedures for selection of the commissioners, including language on how commissioners, attorneys who are allowed to practice privately while serving as commissioners, can avoid any perceived conflicts of interest.
The report lauded some aspects of the magistrate court. It commended judges' participation in a pilot project earlier this year aimed at releasing more pre-trial defendants without bail if they are deemed at low risk for not showing up in court.
A staffer who answered the phone in Cantrell's office Wednesday directed questions to the office of the criminal court administrator, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.