By John Simerman | NOLA.com | July 14, 2020
Arthur Hunter, who parlayed a brief stint as a New Orleans police officer into more than two decades as a Criminal Court judge known as a champion for public defenders, has announced that he will join an intensifying race for Orleans Parish District Attorney.
Hunter, 60, telegraphed the run with his retirement early this year from the bench after 23 years presiding over Section “K” of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse.
He joins Jason Williams, the recently indicted New Orleans City Council president and criminal defense attorney, as the two declared candidates in a race to unseat District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro after two six-year terms. Cannizzaro, however, has not declared his intention to seek re-election. Qualifying is next week.
Hunter’s announcement on his Facebook page followed reports on Monday that his former colleague, District Judge Keva Landrum, is also eyeing a run and plans to step down before next week’s qualifying period. Sitting Louisiana judges are barred from campaigning.
A former prosecutor, Landrum served as interim DA after former District Attorney Eddie Jordan’s resignation, before Cannizzaro won election in 2008.
Hunter is expected to cast himself at the liberal end of the field in a race seen as a referendum on Cannizzaro’s controversial track record. He hopes New Orleans voters are ready for the kinds of sweeping changes – such as bail bond reform — that have landed in big cities nationwide under a wave of progressive district attorneys.
In a video posted to social media on Tuesday, Hunter pledged not to prosecute “minor possession of marijuana” cases and to launch a “conviction integrity unit” to root out bad prosecutions from the past, citing the city’s high rate of documented wrongful convictions. Hunter also said he would launch a special unit focused on violent offenders and drug gangs.
“We will bring change,” he said. “I would not do the same thing and expect different results.”
As a judge, Hunter has garnered local attention as a reformer, largely over his support of public defense causes, such as a stable funding source for indigent defense, since Hurricane Katrina.
Hunter and Judge Laurie White started the state’s first re-entry program, a concept that has since become integral to the state’s prison reform strategy. Hunter also ran a specialized court for veterans facing nonviolent charges.
A St. Augustine High School graduate, Hunter played football at University of Michigan but was stopped by injury during his freshman year, according to his campaign. He returned to Loyola University, worked as a New Orleans police officer in the mid-1980s and graduated from Loyola law school.
Hunter went to work as a staff lawyer for Civil Sheriff Paul Valteau and would become Valteau’s general counsel while opening a private practice. He would later become the choice of Mayor Marc Morial for one of two new judgeships on the Orleans Parish Criminal Court.
He first took the bench in 1997 and helped spearhead a push after Hurricane Katrina to release some defendants who had no lawyers.
In 2012, amid a funding crisis in the Orleans Public Defender’s Office, Hunter cast a spotlight on the issue by appointing high-profile New Orleans residents with law degrees – from politics, media and big law firms — to represent indigent defendants. Four years later, he controversially halted the prosecutions of seven indigent felony defendants, threatening to release them after they’d sat without lawyers, some for months, while a waiting list grew to include scores of defendants seeking free counsel amid a budget squeeze.
Hunter was recognized in the American Bar Journal as a “Legal Rebel” in 2015.
He has faced ample criticism. In a 2013 study by the Metropolitan Crime Commission, Hunter ranked second, behind the since-retired Frank Marullo Jr., in how often defendants left their fate in his hands, rather than a jury’s. Hunter delivered acquittals in 10 of 17 bench trials in 2012, according to the commission, which a decade earlier had questioned his impartiality based on his acquittal rate.
Hunter also went the lightest of any of the 12 Orleans Parish district judges in a recent review of fines issued on criminal defendants.
Hunter, who has faced no meaningful challenge to his seat during at least two elections, also drew criticism for remaining at a house he bought in Baton Rouge for several years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home in New Orleans. Although the state Constitution requires judges up for re-election to have been domiciled in the district where they serve for at least a year, Hunter’s long commute lasted at least until 2014.