Stephanie Grace: The real judges of Orleans Parish

by stephanie grace

New Orleans bureau

Thanks to its generous tax credits and its telegenic characters, Louisiana has become ground zero for reality television.

Locally produced shows have chronicled duck call barons and gator hunters, bad girls and a bad actor with a badge — that is, until Steven Seagal turned in his Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office credentials under threat of an internal investigation into allegations of sex trafficking and sexual assault.

There’s more in the hopper, we’re promised, including one program showcasing the New Orleans Police Department’s homicide detectives at work, and another chronicling disgraced octogenarian ex-Gov. Edwin Edwards and his 30-something wife at, well, whatever it is they do.

What wacky subculture should next be tapped, you ask? Here’s an idea: Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.

This wouldn’t be a typical courtroom procedural, a “Law and Order”-style examination of crime and punishment. In fact, the cases themselves would almost be an afterthought, what with so much of conflict coming from the bench. “Tulane and Broad” would be a serviceable name, but I’d probably go with something more like “The Real Judges of Orleans Parish.”

Just consider some of the storylines from over the last few months.

In the midst of the high-profile armed robbery trial of former Tulane linebacker Trent Mackey, Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson slapped a seasoned — and typically pugnacious — defense attorney for a convicted witness with 24 hours in jail for contempt. An appeals court ruled that the reluctant witness could be forced to testify because he’d taken the stand in his own trial, but his lawyer, Martin Regan, still advised his client to clam up. After a testy exchange, Landrum-Johnson promptly hit him with a contempt charge, although she rescinded the jail time the later the same day.

Lawyers getting threatened with jail time, certainly a rarity at most courthouses, is hardly a novelty at Tulane and Broad.

In February, Judge Robin Pittman ordered Kenny Green, the chief of trials for the public defender’s office, jailed because his “threatening, disrespectful behavior” supposedly put her family in danger. Green had refused Pittman’s order to find his teenage client’s mother to see whether his family receives public assistance, arguing that it wasn’t legally relevant.

“You don’t tell me what’s relevant. Go find out,” Pittman told him.

It took months and the prospect of a lobbying effort by a host of retired judges, high-profile lawyers even former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, but Pittman too eventually relented.

Indeed, potential fodder from bizarre rulings abound.

There was the time earlier this year that Judge Ben Willard fired a defendant’s lawyer in open court, then claimed that he’d done no such thing. Again, the attorney was Martin Regan, who didn’t show up for a proceeding before Willard because he was stuck in court in another parish.

And the time Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier was so vague about whether accused killer Jamal Clay should be released from prison that lawyers had to return to court and listen — twice — to the recorded proceedings, in an attempt to sort out whether she’d inadvertently granted a motion to free Clay based on his right to speedy trial.

For a change of pace, producers could have spent last Wednesday in Judge Laurie White’s courtroom, which Clerk of Court Arthur Morrell had shuttered in a dispute with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office over the funding of his office. Or maybe he hadn’t.

Under subpoena, Morrell came upstairs and told the judge that he’d only meant to threaten that White’s section would be unable to function because he would not provide a clerk, not formally close it — which, he said, would be “ridiculous.” He then fired the PR rep who’d issued a news release stating in no uncertain terms that Morrell “had to shut Section A down today,” saying he hadn’t seen the final draft, even though Morrell himself had gone on television the night before and said basically the same thing.

Hey, shouldn’t every TV series have an eccentric neighbor?

It would be nice if the antics of those presiding over our justice system weren’t quite so newsworthy, let alone entertaining, particularly when they’re dealing with matters that are genuinely serious? But since things aren’t likely to change any time soon, maybe it’s time for the state Supreme Court to stop banning cameras from the court and let us all watch.

It couldn’t be any more embarrassing than watching Seagal work an actual case or seeing Edwards gleefully cavort with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter.

Could it?

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.