- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 5, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A lawsuit challenging a Louisiana court system’s use of fees paid for misdemeanor convictions to cover a judge’s salary was withdrawn after the state eliminated the alleged conflict of interest.

The New Orleans-based Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center asked a federal court Tuesday to dismiss its class-action lawsuit filed in April against the “conviction fee” system in Ascension Parish.

“While we see this as a step in the right direction toward ensuring a fair and impartial judiciary for Louisiana, we are going to be watching the situation on the ground very closely to make sure the statute in fact makes the court’s funding independent of the money it collects through convictions,” said Eric Foley, the center’s staff attorney. “Judges should never be placed in a position to consider their court’s finances or their own salaries when determining someone’s guilt or innocence.”

In Ascension Parish Court, people convicted of misdemeanor crimes - including traffic and municipal ordinance violations - are charged a $15 fee. The “conviction fee” is deposited into the court’s judicial expense fund and used to pay part of the judge’s salary, retirement and benefits. The fund also pays the salaries of most of the court’s staff and other operating expenses.

The suit said that 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.

Foley said the U.S. Supreme Court has found similar “court funding schemes” unconstitutional.

The new state law puts the judicial expense fund under direct control of the Ascension Parish government and its chief financial officer - not a judge who gets paid if a defendant is found guilty, Foley said. The amended law also obligates the parish to fully fund the court’s operations through either the parish’s general fund or the judicial expense fund.

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