Two appeals judges seek Supreme Court seat

What began as an eight-candidate race for the District 5 seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court has been pared to a black Democrat endorsed by business and industry running against a white Republican with big dollars from land owners and attorneys.

The runoff election between the two state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal judges is scheduled for Dec. 8.

John Michael Guidry, of Baton Rouge, is a Democrat running in an eight-parish Supreme Court district where nearly 48 percent of the 511,608 voters are registered as Democrats. Guidry is attempting to become the first black justice in the district’s 14-year history.

Jeff Hughes, of Walker, is a Republican, as are 29 percent of the voters in the district. Hughes carries the endorsement of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal in his bid to become the Supreme Court district’s first Republican justice.

The remaining 23 percent of registered voters in District 5, which includes the parishes of East and West Baton Rouge, East and West Feliciana, Livingston, Ascension, Iberville and Pointe Coupee, list themselves either as members of other parties or as not affiliated with any political party.

Sixty-four percent of the district’s registered voters are white, and 33 percent are black.

In the Nov. 6 primary, Guidry, 50, led all candidates with 27 percent of the vote. Hughes, 60, placed second with 21 percent. Another Democratic candidate and a no-party contestant, combined, collected 16 percent of the primary vote.

But 57 percent of the primary vote was shared by Hughes and the other four Republicans in the race at that time.

“Since a larger number of voters voted for Republican candidates than for Democratic ones on the first ballot, the burden is on Guidry to reach out to those who normally vote Republican in this increasingly partisan state,” said Wayne Parent, a political science professor at LSU.

“From conversations I’ve had with normally Republican members of the business community, Guidry has established himself as a moderate and has an opening with them,” Parent said. “Therefore, he may be able to get some substantial Republican support.”

Parent added, however, that “if Hughes can simply get the votes of those who voted for a Republican the first time, he’s in the driver’s seat.”

Parent said the key to the runoff will be each side getting its supporters to come out to vote.

“Turnout will be much lower than the Nov. 6 election because of the drop in number of elections on the ballot,” he said.

Parent said many voters participated in the Nov. 6 election to express a choice between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney and to vote on proposed constitutional amendments and local tax items. He said some of those voters will not be as motivated to participate in the general election, absent those other campaigns and issues.

In the primary election, the four political action committees of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, or LABI, endorsed Republican District Judge William Morvant, of Baton Rouge, who received 11 percent of the vote.

But the LABI PACs’ support now will go to a Democrat.

“Our PACs have endorsed Judge Guidry in the runoff,” Ginger Sawyer, LABI’s vice president for political action, said in a post-primary interview.

Sawyer said LABI’s committees endorsed Guidry because “he has committed to treat every case impartially, with no favoritism to any group or person, and to interpret the law as it is written.”

Committee members, she said, found Guidry’s interview “impressive and his legal experience outstanding.” She said they also were impressed by Guidry’s “experience, education, administrative skills and reputation, along with his proven service to the community.”

Guidry told a group of about 50 people earlier this month at the McKinley Alumni Center in Baton Rouge that the LABI committees’ endorsement of his candidacy is proof that his fair approach to reaching judicial decisions has attracted “a large and diverse range of support.”

The 15-year appellate judge said other supporters include building contractors, the Louisiana Chemical Association and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.

“We have the working people of this district,” Guidry said. “We have the business owners.”

Hughes expressed disappointment over the LABI committees’ decision to back Guidry.

“Someone’s making these decisions without a lot of input from the (LABI) membership,” said the eight-year appellate judge, who also spent 14 years on a district court bench. “There are folks with LABI who tell me they are disappointed with the way this election has been handled.”

Hughes has support from a political action committee, Citizens for Clean Water and Land, that was formed by attorneys who represent landowners with civil suits against oil companies for alleged environmental damage.

A check of just three Baton Rouge television stations — WBRZ-TV Channel 2, WAFB-TV Channel 9 and WVLA-TV Channel 33 — showed Citizens for Clean Water and Land paid a combined total of $324,394 for primary-election commercials promoting Hughes’ candidacy.

In filings with the Louisiana Ethics Administration, Hughes reported contributions totaling $289,354, which includes a $250,100 loan he made to his campaign.

Guidry had no television commercials and reported $94,853 in contributions, including $60,214 of his personal funds.

Nine days after the primary, the Washington, D.C.-based American Tort Reform Association criticized Jindal’s endorsement of Hughes, alleging the judge is supported by attorneys and landowners with long-running “legacy lawsuits” against oil-and-gas companies.

The legacy suits seek payments for alleged environmental damage caused years ago by drilling operations.

Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, has claimed that Citizens for Clean Water and Land was funneling money to Hughes’ campaign on behalf of people intent on pursuing legacy lawsuits.

Hughes said the support by Citizens for Clean Water and Land would not influence him if he ever hears a legacy lawsuit appeal.

“I’ve personally never seen a legacy lawsuit in 22 years on the bench,” Hughes added. “But I’m going to follow the law.”

Hughes noted Jindal’s support for his candidacy. “He’s governor of the state, a good Republican,” Hughes said. “I’m glad to have his endorsement.”

Jeffrey D. Sadow, a political science professor with LSU-Shreveport, said he expects Hughes to win the runoff. Sadow said most voters won’t care about what groups endorse either candidate. He said the same of Hughes’ funding and the concerns voiced by the American Tort Reform Association and the Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch’s Landry.

Sadow said Hughes’ decision early in the campaign to describe his personal views as pro-gun, pro-traditional marriage, pro-life and pro-death penalty boosted his candidacy.

“That probably caught people’s attention … and separated (Hughes) from the pack of other Republicans,” Sadow said.

He predicted Guidry will not be able to peel off enough Republican and independent voters to best Hughes in the runoff.

Although substantially more District 5 voters are registered as Democrats than Republicans, Sadow said many of those Democrats are conservatives who regularly vote for Republican candidates.

Sadow also said most of Guidry’s primary votes were collected in predominantly black precincts. Because only a third of the district’s registered voters are black, Sadow said, white voters likely will deliver the election to Hughes.