State judge blocks enforcement of new state elections law, sets hearing

On the eve of qualifying for the fall elections, incumbent constables or justices of the peace who are 70 or older will be able to sign up to run for office, despite a new law that sought to force them into retirement.

State District Judge Tim Kelley issued an order Monday afternoon temporarily halting enforcement of the law, which will allow the officials to qualify starting on Wednesday. He scheduled an Aug. 29 hearing to further explore the arguments in a lawsuit that challenges the new age restrictions.

“This has been a very emotional and stressful time for our association,” said Connie Moore, a St. Tammany Parish justice of the peace and president of the Louisiana Justice of the Peace and Constables Association, which filed the lawsuit challenging the age mandates.

The association noted in its suit there are nearly 800 elected constables and justices of the peace in the state, and perhaps a quarter of those officials would have been aged out of running again under the change. The group argued the new law serves no legitimate governmental interest and amounted to unconstitutional age discrimination.

“The enactment of Act 495 arbitrarily, capriciously, and unreasonably discriminates against approximately 200 of them who happen to be 70 years of age or older and who successfully and satisfactorily serve citizens throughout this state,” the suit alleged.

The change sailed through the Legislature this spring, with just one lawmaker voting against the bill on the floor. But as the qualifying period approached, the change has provoked outrage from some justices of the peace and constables.

For the legal challenge at the 19th Judicial District Court, even the bill’s sponsor joined the attack. State Sen. Elbert Guillory, R-Opelousas, submitted a sworn affidavit saying he wrote the legislation because he believed it would be requested by the justice of the peace group — something the association has denied. In the affidavit he pledged to revisit the law in the 2015 legislative session.

Justices of the peace preside over small claims cases, have limited criminal jurisdiction, perform marriages, do some notary work and handle evictions. Constables serve eviction and civil suit papers. Like judges, justices of the peace and constables are elected officials.

A law that sets a mandatory retirement age of 70 for constables and justices of the peace has been on the books since 2006, but it excluded anyone elected before then. Guillory’s bill, which became Act 495, removed that exemption.

Lynwood Broussard has served as a Lafayette Parish justice of the peace since 1972. At 77, Broussard said he’s as fit to serve as he ever was, and had planned to qualify for a new six-year term regardless of the new restriction.

“As long as I am capable, I feel I am going to stay in office,” he said. “I always felt that the act was unconstitutional because it discriminates against us because of age.”

When previously asked about the law, Guillory told the Associated Press that the unidentified man who suggested the law complained that the justices or constables are allowed to carry weapons under state law, but some are “in wheelchairs, some on oxygen tanks.”

In the association’s lawsuit, attorneys noted that another bill approved during the recent session specifically exempted the age limit from applying to any constable in Livingston Parish.

“If a seventy year old constable residing in Tangipahoa or Red River Parish or any other parish is, in the opinion of the State of Louisiana, too old for office, then why is a seventy year old constable residing in the geographic boundaries of Livingston Parish not as well?,” the association’s suit asked.

Louisiana has a restriction in its state constitution that requires judges to retire after reaching age 70 and finishing their current terms, but that has been criticized as discriminatory. Voters in November will be considering whether to repeal that provision.

Advocate reporter Richard Burgess contributed to this report.