Municipal Court Judge Catherine Ramsey has cost cash-strapped North Las Vegas “a lot of money” recently, perhaps as much as $10,000 a month, according to city officials.
Mayor’s Office Chief of Staff Ryann Juden last week voiced his disgruntlement with Ramsey over allegations she has deprived the city of thousands of dollars in court-collected fines and fees in response to a departmentwide belt-tightening.
“During a time when our employees, residents and businesses across the city are working to resolve the issues of the past, the reports coming out of the court are alarming and inconsistent with the real sacrifices so many other people are making to move our city forward,” Juden said.
Court collections dropped by 20 percent in fiscal year 2012-13, shaving some $320,000 off the city’s revenue, records show. That drop-off includes both of the city’s courtrooms, but a breakdown by court is not available.
Attorneys, who asked that they not be identified because they feared retribution, say Ramsey has had a lot to do with that drop-off. They cited dozens of instances where the judge criticized city leaders from the bench, withholding thousands of dollars in court collection fees to punish the city for thinning court budgets and failing to bolster tech support staff.
North Las Vegas’ first elected female judge denied holding a grudge against the city, least of all over staffing and budget issues.
“The only thing that I’ve been doing is dismissing invalid warrants,” Ramsey said. “If it’s not a valid charge, I won’t sign it.”
ATTORNEYS OFFER EXAMPLE
Attorneys fear the weight of some Ramsey decisions can’t be measured on a balance sheet.
One example featured a defendant facing criminal charges related to a hit-and-run that sent a 5-year-old girl to the hospital in December 2012.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal has learned a defense attorney handling the case missed a pair of scheduled court appearances and a city prosecutor, who was seeking jail time for the defendant, arrived late for a third. By the time both parties managed to meet in the same room, Ramsey had already swung the gavel, reducing several charges pending against the defendant to a $75 parking citation, plus court costs.
The case, which never saw a scheduled pretrial hearing, was appealed and eventually remanded to Ramsey’s court. The judge dismissed a bench warrant for the defendant’s arrest, and scheduled his next court appearance in September.
“Of all the egregious things she’s done, that, for me, is at the top,” one attorney said.
Attorneys rattled off a half-dozen cases where Ramsey waived statutory minimum sentences on domestic violence convictions and unilaterally dismissed driver’s license suspensions issued by the district attorney’s office for failure to pay child support.
They said defendants had lawyers in each of those cases, and none pleaded to a lesser charge.
“These are all things that are geared toward helping criminals, that’s the crazy thing about it,” said one attorney. “They make it easier for defendants to get away with a crime.”
Ramsey said driver’s licenses can be suspended for several reasons, but only by the Department of Motor Vehicles. She said sentences on domestic violence convictions are often negotiated between defense counsel and city attorneys, but declined to directly comment on whether she had dismissed minimum community service required in domestic violence cases.
UPSET OVER STAFF CUT
Ramsey, first elected to Municipal Court in 2011, lost a key information technology staffer to City Hall early this year, a move the judge said has hindered her court’s ability to do business.
She said her department is also owed thousands of dollars in court support funds recently diverted to the recession-ravaged city’s general fund.
City Council members swept some $200,000 from the Municipal Court budget last year and stripped another $400,000 from court accounts to settle with city bargaining groups and balance a tentative city spending plan accepted by state tax officials this month.
City officials said Ramsey has quashed dozens of misdemeanor warrants and needlessly marked down thousands of dollars in traffic fines in response to the move.
“It’s fueled by a vendetta,” said one attorney. “She will routinely cut fines or take a fraction of the cost to close the case out.”
The city attorney’s office declined to speak to specific criticisms surrounding Ramsey’s courtroom conduct out of “respect for the office.”
City spokesman Mitch Fox said city management and the mayor are “well aware of the ongoing issues in our courts and working to resolve them.”
Ramsey defended the sentence she gave in the hit-and-run case, saying it’s “not unusual” for the city attorney’s office to seek parking fines in criminal hit-and-run cases.
She couldn’t point to any specific instances where the city had done so, but promised to look into the matter.
“If the city attorney fails to appear or make their desires known, the defense counsel can take this silence to attempt to obtain a more favorable outcome,” Ramsey added via email. “The city attorney is ultimately responsible for the monitoring of all cases in which there is a distinct public interest in seeking harsher penalties.”
Ramsey said she has never dismissed a warrant or failure-to-appear order signed by City Attorney Sandra Douglass Morgan, only those signed by former City Attorney Jeff Barr. She didn’t explain the difference in treatment.
She stressed that it is the city’s responsibility to ensure they’re signed by the right person. Ramsey said filling the court’s IT position could help solve that problem for a fraction of the $1.7 million in misdemeanor fines and court fees she helped collect last fiscal year.
“Courts are being left behind,” Ramsey said in a March 10 interview. “Our computer system is outdated and not serving the court’s needs.”
Ramsey holds those technology gaps partially responsible for a recent slowdown in court fees revenue.
“This (IT) position is crucial and needs to be filled with the funds already allocated to the court,” Ramsey wrote in a March 3 email to city leaders. “The shortfall in the IT division is causing a hardship for the court, has civil rights ramifications by improper warrants being printed and served upon community members, and also results in a loss of revenue for the city.”
Those in Ramsey’s court on Feb. 10 say they heard the judge reiterate that sentiment more than once, warning that unless officials replace a court IT staffer “it’s going to cost the city a lot of money.”
Ramsey denies making the remark, which could not be retrieved via court television or transcripts.
“The court is not a court of record even though we have asked to be one of record like other local municipalities,” Ramsey said in a text message. A court of record, as defined under common law, is one that keeps a written record of each case at least until the appeals process has been exhausted. “Under the statute, it is the city who decides if and when that will occur.”
North Las Vegas, once one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, has shed more than 1,000 employees and shaved $211 million off its bottom line since 2008.
The city has seen tax revenues fall by half since the start of the Great Recession and was recently named the riskiest nonbankrupt municipal bond investment in the country.
It’s hard to pick out one big reason for the downward trend in court collections. Municipal Court fees have also taken a dive.
Court documents obtained by the Review-Journal point to several small drivers behind the decline, including thousands lost from the routine dismissal of failure-to-appear fines.
Judge Sean Hoeffgen, Ramsey’s Municipal Court counterpart, did not respond to requests for comment.
City Council members this month unanimously OK’d Hoeffgen’s offer to take a voluntary pay cut, one that knocks an estimated $11,840 in annual car allowance and retirement plan contributions off the veteran judge’s salary.
Publicly available salary data show Hoeffgen stands to make $198,738 in total pay and benefits after the move.
Ramsey looks set to collect $210,560 in total pay and benefits next year. She has no immediate plans to take a similar pay cut.
Contact James DeHaven at email@example.com or 702-477-3839. Follow @JamesDeHaven on Twitter.