- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A lawsuit is challenging a Louisiana court system’s use of fees people pay upon conviction of misdemeanor crimes to pay a judge’s salary and other court expenses.

On Tuesday, the New Orleans-based Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed a class-action lawsuit to overturn the “conviction fee” system in Ascension Parish.

The suit was filed in federal court in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on behalf of Richard Williams, who lives in Gonzales. The center said Williams was cited on Nov. 12, 2015, by sheriff’s deputies for violating an animal ordinance because of his dog’s barking.

The suit calls the fee system unconstitutional because it creates an “impermissible conflict of interest.”

Judge Marilyn Lambert, the only judge in the Ascension Parish court, did not return a message Wednesday seeking comment.

The suit contends that a large part of Lambert’s $146,580 salary, retirement and expenses for her car and travel come from a fund containing conviction fees. Also, the fees pay for court staff salaries and operating expenses.

The suit says between July 2014 and June 2015 the parish court collected about $136,480 in such fees, accounting for about 36 percent of the money in a judicial fund that pays for the court system.

Eric Foley, a staff lawyer with the MacArthur Justice Center, said the U.S. Supreme Court has found similar “court funding schemes” unconstitutional.

“A defendant in the Ascension Parish Court is forced to appear before a judge whose livelihood depends, in large part, on a fee the judge can collect only when she convicts defendants,” Foley said in a statement. “It’s a perverse incentive.”

He called it one of Louisiana’s “more egregious examples” of not fully funding its judicial system.

Sheriff Jeffrey Wiley, who was also named in the suit, said the lawsuit had no merit and that fees play an important role.

“In a free society, there has to be consequences for criminal behavior,” Wiley said. “Sometimes it’s incarceration; sometimes it’s in a financial levy.”

Wiley’s office collects the fees. He said his office simply does what it is ordered to do by law.

“I am absolutely bound by law to do this, so I’m miffed, to say the least, to be sued,” he said.

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