Inside Report for Jan. 29, 2013

When Catherine “Kitty” Kimball was sworn in Jan. 12, 1993, as the first woman elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court, then-Gov. Edwin Edwards made the following remark at her induction ceremony: “The court is now balanced — one Kitty Kimball, seven men.”

Two decades later, as Kimball prepares to retire from the now seven-member high court with the distinction of also being its first female chief justice, the state’s judiciary remains majority male but is no longer the men’s club it was not that long ago.

Today in East Baton Rouge Parish, for example, four of the 15 judges on the 19th Judicial District Court are women, all four Family Court judges are female, both Juvenile Court judges are women, and four of the five Baton Rouge City Court judges are female.

In addition, Vanessa Guidry Whipple, who in 1990 became the first woman elected to the Baton Rouge-based state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, was sworn in Jan. 9 as the appellate court’s first female chief judge.

Also, on Feb. 28, state Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson will be sworn in as the high court’s next chief justice, succeeding Kimball, who has been chief justice since 2009.

Kimball, whose last day on the New Orleans-based court is Thursday, recalled in an interview earlier this month that when she became an 18th Judicial District Court judge in 1982, she was only the fifth female district court judge in the state at the time.

“It definitely was” male-dominated, Kimball, of Ventress, said of Louisiana’s bench. But today, she noted further, 107 of the state’s 280 judges are women.

“That’s a nice little change,” Kimball observed, adding that she was one of only five women in her law school class of 200.

“The pool is increasing, and there are so many more women attorneys in the field,” she said.

State District Judge Bonnie Jackson, who has served on the Baton Rouge-based 19th JDC since 1993, said “all of the judges were men” in the “olden days” when she began practicing law in 1978. Traditionally, she said, lawyers with established practices — meaning men — ran for judgeships. But times are changing.

“I have to believe there are going to be more and more women (lawyers and judges) because of the percentages of the women in law school,” she said. “Women were not as prevalent in the (law school) classes as they are now.”

Jackson acknowledged that the gender of judges is “something I absolutely rarely think about.” At meetings of the 19th JDC judges, she said, she looks around the room and sees only “a roomful of judges.”

East Baton Rouge Parish Family Court Judge Pamela Baker, who has served on that court since 2007, said that while campaigning she has been told by men and women alike that female Family Court judges are preferred.

“I heard that more from men than women,” she said. “They told me women are more likely to take the time to listen.”

Baker, however, said she “completely disagrees” with that sentiment and said she would like to see a male judge on Family Court.

“Judges of both genders bring the same important quality to the bench — application of the black-letter law, rules and evidence,” explained City Court Judge Suzan Ponder, who has served on that court since 1993. “The major difference is the path that each judge has traveled before being elected or appointed and the experiences that they carry into the courtroom. Each litigant has a different reason for appearing in court and each case has a different set of facts. Judges address each person or case on an individual basis using all of the knowledge and tools that he or she has available, including our own life’s experience.”

Joe Gyan Jr. covers courts for The Advocate. He can be reached at jgyan@theadvocate.com.