8 vie for Supreme Court judge seat
One of the eight candidates for the District 5 seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court said during a candidate forum Thursday that he personally favors the death penalty.
Judge Jeff Hughes, a Republican member of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge, was responding to a question at a forum conducted by the Baton Rouge chapter of the League of Women Voters when he offered his personal views on the death penalty.
The issue came up when Jean Armstrong, president of the chapter, asked all the candidates what they thought should be done about a statewide shortage of attorneys who are certified to represent defendants in death-penalty cases.
Hughes said the lack of certified attorneys causes murder cases to grind too slowly through the judicial system.
Many judges do not publicly state their personal opinions on a particular law to avoid possible allegations of bias by one party or another in those judges’ court cases. Hughes, however, volunteered: “I’m personally in favor of the death penalty.”
Baton Rouge attorney Jeffry L. Sanford, no party, told the audience of more than 100 at Drusilla Seafood Restaurant, that young lawyers must be encouraged to go through the training process to be certified to handle death-penalty cases.
“It’s crucially necessary right now,” Sanford said.
Republican candidate Jewel “Duke” Welch, a judge on the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, said members of the Supreme Court must ask the Legislature for additional funding for training of lawyers in death-penalty law.
“You’ve got to know those (death-penalty) rules,” Welch said.
Democratic candidate Mary Olive Pierson, a longtime Baton Rouge trial attorney, said: “We have to do something. This is a very serious issue.”
Republican candidate William “Bill” Morvant, a judge with the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, agreed that the lack of funding for training defense attorneys in death-penalty rules is critical issue. He said it’s a problem that the judiciary, Legislature and state bar association must solve through joint effort.
Morvant added that some public defender offices in Louisiana face funding shortages in part because some judges in state district courts sometimes fail to collect state-required fees from people convicted of criminal offenses. Some of those fees are dedicated to the public defender offices.
Democratic candidate John Michael Guidry, a judge on the 1st Circuit bench, said: “I believe we have to train (those) judges.”
Guidry agreed with other candidates that additional funding from the Legislature is needed now. The families of murder victims are adversely affected by trial delays, he said.
Judge Toni Higginbotham, a Republican on the 1st Circuit bench, said the shortage of death-penalty-certified attorneys could do more than slow the judicial process in murder cases. She said it could result in re-trials and an increased drain on tax dollars.
Judge Tim Kelley, a Republican serving on the 19th Judicial District Court, said certified death-penalty lawyers are a necessary part of the judicial system.
Most murder defendants are not wealthy, Kelley said, so there have to be qualified, court-appointed attorneys available to represent them.
Armstrong wanted to know whether the candidates believe the actions and campaign contributions of special-interest groups are affecting their ability to remain impartial.
“I’ve never had special interest groups behind me, so I’ve never had that kind of pressure,” Higginbotham replied.
Guidry acknowledged he has support from both labor and industry groups, but said most of his contributions have come from ordinary people.
“You could kind of say I’m the people’s judge,” Guidry said.
Kelley said he and other judges do not pay attention to who contributes to their campaigns.
“But the public doesn’t (always) see it that way,” Kelley said. “We need the public to hold the judiciary in the highest regard.”
Pierson, who has poured some of her own savings into her campaign, said she believes special interests are always attempting to influence the judiciary.
“They’re not sneaking into my campaign,” Pierson said. “If you look at my contributions, I’m my favorite friend.”
As long as a judge renders fair and impartial decisions in court cases, Morvant said, acceptance of campaign contributions should not diminish that judge’s reputation.
“I’ve got the endorsement and backing” of business and industry groups, Morvant added. “I’m not ashamed.”
Sanford, the no-party candidate, said a Tulane Law Review study concluded in 2008 that members of the Louisiana Supreme Court often side with litigants who contribute to their campaign, adding that “two special interest groups are Democrats and Republicans.”
Two professors from LSU and the University of New Orleans have questioned the validity of the Tulane study’s conclusions.
Hughes, who is the largest contributor to his campaign so far, said: “The important thing is that we elect our state judges.” He said voters should support him on the basis of his qualifications and 22-year record as a judge.
Welch told the audience: “The largest contributor to my campaign is me.”
The 18-year judge said he has won his previous elections because of his record of fairness and impartiality in the courtroom.
“The law and the facts dictate the results” in his courtroom, Welch said.
Armstrong asked whether Louisiana laws should be changed for the benefit of business.
“The Supreme Court is not the economic builder of this state,” Pierson said. “We’re not into economic development at the Supreme Court. We have to be independent and open-minded and simply apply the laws and the Constitution.”
Morvant said the Supreme Court’s role “is to interpret the laws as given to us by the Legislature, and not to legislate from the bench.”
“We can find laws unconstitutional,” Sanford said.
“I would certainly like to find some taxes unconstitutional.”
“Judges should do their jobs in the courtroom and little else,” Hughes said.
“The scales of justice should be even,” Welch said. “If you go in and it’s tilted toward (one side), it’s not justice.”
Higginbotham agreed that only the Constitution and state laws should be used to decide court cases.
Guidry said businesses will come to a state that has fair judges.
“I’m basically an umpire,” Guidry said. “I call things as I see them.”
Kelley said that neither he nor any of the other seven candidates would unfairly tilt court decisions in favor of business interests.
“The Supreme Court of Louisiana is not a statewide chamber of commerce,” Kelley said.
Armstrong also asked the candidates their position on whether cameras should be allowed in Louisiana courtrooms.
“I personally don’t have a problem with cameras in the courtroom,” Kelley said.
However, he said, family cases and other cases involving children should not be televised or photographed.
Pierson agreed that children should be shielded from cameras, but added, “You know I love cameras. I think cameras in the courtroom are a good thing.”
Morvant disagreed, adding that televising the California murder trial of O.J. Simpson was a mistake.
“Our courts are open to the public,” Morvant noted. “I’m not in favor of cameras in the courtroom.”
Sanford said cameras should be allowed in courtrooms, but added that no children should be filmed.
“What Bill (Morvant) said,” Hughes told the audience. Hughes said the Florida murder trial of Casey Anthony “was turned into a circus” by cameras.
Welch expressed opposition to cameras at criminal trials, but said they should be allowed at civil trials not involving children.
“To watch Ollie (Pierson) pick a jury would be the greatest thing I could show a class” of law students, Welch said.
Higginbotham, who served more than a decade as a family court judge, said she opposes cameras in family court.
“I strongly favor cameras in the courtroom,” said Guidry. “We are doing the people’s business, and it should be done in public.”
He said exceptions should be made for children and victims of some crimes.
District 5 includes the parishes of East and West Baton Rouge, East and West Feliciana, Livingston, Ascension, Iberville and Pointe Coupee.