19th District Court to welcome new commissioner

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Nicole Robinson, a criminal law clerk, becomes a 19th Judicial District Court commissioner on Jan. 7, one of two commissioners for the district court system.
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Nicole Robinson, a criminal law clerk, becomes a 19th Judicial District Court commissioner on Jan. 7, one of two commissioners for the district court system.

Nicole Robinson, who has served as criminal law clerk for 19th Judicial District Court Judge Chip Moore since 2005, describes herself as a team player and says she’ll have no problem answering to all 15 judges of the district once she assumes her new post Jan. 7 as one of the court’s two commissioners.

The 38-year-old Robinson, known in the downtown Baton Rouge courthouse as Nicki, was chosen Nov. 28 by the 19th JDC bench to replace retiring Commissioner Rachel Pitcher Morgan, who has held the post since 1996.

Commissioners are quasi-judges. They make recommendations to judges, but cannot accept guilty pleas or sentence defendants or otherwise make what is known in the law as a final adjudication.

“I’m first and foremost a team player,” Robinson said. “I like being a support player.”

Robinson said Morgan and former 19th JDC Commissioner John Smart, who retired at midyear after serving in that post since 2002, have “been such a resource for me.”

“I hope to live up to that,” she said.

Moore said he has total confidence in Robinson.

“Nicki knows what to do. Her work ethic is impeccable,” the judge said. “I’m glad for her, but I’m sorry to lose her. I was really lucky to get her when I did. I hope lightning will strike twice.”

Morgan, 63, also has high praise for her replacement.

“She knows what is in store. I have every confidence in Nicole that she’ll do a great job,” said Morgan, whose last day on the job is Jan. 4.

Baton Rouge lawyer Quintillis K. Lawrence, who was an assistant public defender in East Baton Rouge Parish, replaced Smart in early July.

The post of commissioner in East Baton Rouge Parish was created by the Legislature to handle the numerous prisoner lawsuits filed each year against the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections. All such suits are filed in the 19th JDC.

Commissioners also handle executory process — or foreclosure — suits; applications for post-conviction relief, with the exception of first-degree murder cases; and uncontested applications to expunge, or remove, certain criminal records.

Commissioners sit in for criminal court judges when asked to do so. They sign search warrants, arrest warrants, subpoenas, and seizure orders for foreclosures.

They can also take indictment returns from grand juries.

Commissioners also handle “call-out’’ — another term for an initial court appearance — for newly arrested prisoners via video hookup from East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. At call-out, prisoners are advised of their right to an attorney. Commissioners also set bail at call-out.

Robinson said she is humbled but not intimidated by the substantial workload that lies ahead.

“I’ve been in it for almost eight years. I’ve tried to take in as much as I can and learn as much as I can,” she said. “I’m not afraid of the work. You just have to have confidence in your abilities.”

Morgan, who has been practicing law since 1975, said she plans to retire to Lacombe and volunteer her time working with children and horses. She also plans on enjoying two of her hobbies: kayaking and photography.

“I won’t be practicing law,” she said with a smile. “I want to do something at a more leisurely pace.”

There are 11 commissioners statewide: four in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, three in the 24th JDC (Jefferson Parish), two in the 19th JDC; and one each in the 15th JDC (Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes) and 22nd JDC (St. Tammany and Washington parishes), according to the Louisiana Supreme Court.