Caliste v. Cantrell 937 F.3d 525 (5th Cir. 2019).
Issue: Whether there is a conflict of interest when a magistrate responsible for bail decisions is also responsible for generating and administrating court fees, and whether such a potential conflict violates the defendants’ due process rights to an impartial tribunal.
- Holding: Even if the judge is not directly benefiting financially from his dual role under these circumstances, there is enough of a financial incentive that an unconstitutional conflict is created.
Procedural History: This case was on appeal from the U.S. District Court of Eastern District of Louisiana. While in jail, Adrian Caliste and Brian Gisclair filed federal civil rights lawsuits against Judge Cantrell on behalf of themselves and as representatives for the class of plaintiffs who have and will appear before Judge Cantrell as defendants. In it, they alleged that Judge Cantrell’s failure to conduct ability to pay determinations before setting bonds and the conflict of interest involving his role as an administer and beneficiary of money raised through bail bond sureties violated Due Process and Equal Protection. “A year after the case was filed, Judge Cantrell told the district court that he had altered his bail practices to consider ability to pay and argued that this change mooted the first claim. The district court disagreed and granted a declaratory judgment on both claims.” Judge Cantrell appealed only the determination that his setting the bonds that help fund his court violates due process.
Facts: The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judicial expenses are funded in part by the bail decisions made by the magistrate that determine whether a defendant obtains pretrial release. “Under Louisiana law, 1.8% of a commercial bond’s value is deposited into the court’s Judicial Expense Fund .” Although this fund does not pay judicial salaries, it does contribute to the salaries of the judge’s staff, including secretaries, law clerks, and court reporters. The fund also goes to travel expenses, office supplies, and other support costs. The surety bonds account for 20-25% of the amount spent from this fund, and all 13 judges of the district administer the fund. The judge in this suit imposed a secure money bond on both defendants at their initial hearings. Mr. Caliste was able to pay his bond and secure his release after more than two weeks in jail. Mr. Gisclair was unable to raise the funds necessary for his bond and was held in jail for more than a month before ultimately being released.
Appellate Court’s Reasoning:
- The standard of review in this case is whether the “average man as a judge” would possibly be tempted to “forget the burden of proof required to convict the defendant, or which might lead him not to hold the balance nice, clear, and true between the state and the accused, denies the latter due process of law.” p. 7
- While Judge Cantrell is not directly benefiting financially, “requiring secured money bond provides him with substantial nonmonetary benefits. Most significantly, money from commercial surety bond fees help pay the judge’s staff. Without support staff, a judge must spend more time performing administrative tasks. Time is money. And some important tasks cannot be done without staff.” p. 10
- “Because he must manage his chambers to perform the judicial tasks the voters elected him to do, Judge Cantrell has a direct and personal interest in the fiscal health of the public institution that benefits from the fees his court generates and that he also helps allocate. And the bond fees impact the bottom line of the court[.] …. The 20-25% of the Expense Fund that comes from bond fees is … sizeable enough that it makes a meaningful difference in the staffing and supplies judges receive. The dual role thus may make the magistrate ‘partisan to maintain the high level of contribution’ from the bond fees.” (citing Ward v. Monroeville, 109 U.S. 57, 60) p. 11-12
The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s declarative relief that the judge’s actions violated due process. You can read the full opinion here.