Travers Mackel/Chris Slaughter | WDSU | November 2, 2020
NEW ORLEANS —
Is a race for judge in New Orleans being improperly held?
State law seems to indicate that’s what’s happening.
Back in 2014 the state Legislature in Baton Rouge, under a directive from then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu, agreed to downsize the number of judges at juvenile court in New Orleans, going from six down to four.
The law clearly reads that in 2014, one seat in the court would go away. That post was held by Judge Lawrence Lagarde.
He was too old to run. It was easy to eliminate that seat.
The next judge seat was set to be eliminated when a judge either died, was disqualified, was disbarred or retired.
This year, two judges are not seeking reelection to their juvenile court posts — Judge Ernestine Gray, because she’s barred to seek reelection due age limits, and Judge Mark Doherty.
Doherty just chose not to run.
So one should be eliminated? Right?
But it’s not.
“It’s pretty cut and dry – the spirit and intention was to reduce the number of seats in juvenile court, it’s as simple as that,” said former state Sen. A.G. Crowe.
Crowe authored the legislation that became law back in 2014.
A few months ago three juvenile court judges won reelection after qualifying and no one chose to run against them.
And Crowe says state law is clear: One seat should be eliminated leaving only one up for grabs on Election Day, not two.
“Someone needs to step in on the judicial side of this and stop this and stop this fiasco that happens to be going on right now,” said Crowe.
Here’s why the election for two seats is happening.
A former, longtime court spokesperson says since Gray and Doherty are not retiring, only not seeking reelection, there’s no need to eliminate one of the seats.
Which begs the question: If you’re not seeking reelection, after more than 20 years as a judge, aren’t you retiring from the bench?
“I think clearly people are being clever with the specific language,” said Ryan Berni.
Berni served as Landrieu’s chief administrative officer and helped craft the bill that was eventually signed into law.
“Is what’s going on right now in the spirit of what you all, the Landrieu administration intended when it comes to shrinking the court?” Asked WDSU’s Travers Mackel.
“The intent was to be four judgeships and it’s not because of politics,” said Berni.
The chief judge of juvenile court referred us to her colleagues for a comment.
We contacted both Gray and Doherty to ask them why one of the seats is not being eliminated, as state law indicates.
Neither returned repeated calls, text messages or emails.
“Clearly there is a loophole in the law, unintended that would allow any number of scenarios to play out,” said Berni.
One such scenario – that a judge can take matters into their own hands if they don’t like who wins one of the two seats up for grabs.
“I saw this train wreck coming before,” said Ralph Brandt.
Brandt formally ran the juvenile division for the Orleans Parish district attorney.
Remember, the way the law is crafted, it uses this word: “retirement.”
So if Gray or Doherty do not like who wins their soon-to-be vacated seats on Nov. 3, they could – under this law – immediately retire on Nov. 4.
That, by law, would eliminate the seat.
“This is a disturbing example of them trying to circumvent the intent of a law,” said Rafael Goyeneche.
Goyeneche runs the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
He says the Supreme Court has to act.
“This creates the appearance of impropriety, it affects the public’s perception of the integrity of the court,” said Goyeneche.
And here’s the most important thing: The savings the city could see? It’s big money. Especially now, as the COVID-19 crisis is crunching city hall finances.
The legislation adds it up to over $800,000 saved annually.
“That’s money that could be put into other areas to help protect the people of New Orleans,” said Crowe.
Years ago, then-councilwoman LaToya Cantrell testified in support of shrinking juvenile court.
But in 2020, despite what the bill’s author and others say, her administration says this:
“The criteria outlined in the legislation seeking to eliminate a second juvenile court seat has not yet been met. Once the relevant criteria has been met, or the legislation is changed to create new criteria, it is anticipated that a second juvenile court seat will be eliminated.”
We asked the city to elaborate on how it feels the criteria isn’t being met, but they did not respond.
And finally when the new juvenile court opened in 2016 on Bayou St. John, only four courtrooms were built with plans for the $47 million facility to only have four judges, but there have been five since the groundbreaking.
With a judge using a conference room as a court room — and based on what happens on Election Day – it looks like that will continue.
“It should be disturbing to the public,” said Goyeneche.
The Louisiana Supreme Court recommends 1.2 juvenile judges for New Orleans, again, there are five.
It’s the largest in the state.
Their salaries are set at $143,000 a year each.