Eight candidates, including six longtime judges, want to win the District 5 seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court in the Nov. 6 election. They include five Republicans, two Democrats and one no-party candidate.
Judge John Michael Guidry, of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, has the official backing of the Louisiana Democratic Party.
The Republican Party of East Baton Rouge Parish hedged its bet, throwing its weight behind two high-court candidates — Judge Toni Higginbotham, of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, and Judge Tim Kelley, of the 19th Judicial District Court.
Guidry said his even-handed work on the bench has enabled him to attract supporters from labor, business and both major political parties.
“I believe that no man is above the law and that my job is to apply the Constitution and laws without fear or favor,” Guidry said.
Guidry’s experience includes time as a state senator, state representative and as a member of both the Greater Baton Rouge Port Commission and Greater Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport Commission.
In addition to his duties on the appellate bench, Guidry serves as an adjunct professor at both the Southern University Law Center and Southern’s Nelson Mandela School of Public Policy.
The 15-year appellate judge showed total contributions of $51,543 on a campaign finance report due Oct. 9 with the Louisiana Ethics Administration. Of that total, $22,119 was in the form of loans from Guidry’s personal funds.
On the September night that Higginbotham and Kelley were endorsed by the Republican Party in East Baton Rouge Parish, Higginbotham said she intends to become the first GOP candidate to be elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court from its eight-parish District 5.
Press Secretary Meg Casper and Archives Specialist Jim Morris, both of the Secretary of State’s Office, confirmed no Republican has occupied the District 5 seat on the Supreme Court from the district’s current eight-parish configuration.
East and West Baton Rouge, Livingston, Ascension, Iberville, Pointe Coupee and East and West Feliciana parishes became District 5 in 1999, Morris explained. He said the only Supreme Court justice to be elected from that district is a Democrat, Chief Justice Kitty Kimball.
The justice from Ventress has announced she will retire in January with six years remaining on her 10-year term of office.
Higginbotham refers to herself in speeches and campaign advertisements as a “proven conservative.” She has substantial experience as both a Family Court judge and 1st Circuit judge, as well as years of service as a schoolteacher early in her career.
Higginbotham told the League of Women Voters that she entered law school when she was 40.
As an attorney in private practice, Higginbotham once served as chief legal counsel for the Louisiana Police Jury Association.
The national president of the American Judges Association also has served as a board member of Crime Stoppers and as chairwoman of the Greater Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport Commission.
“I will not allow the courtroom to become a vehicle for carrying out an extremist agenda,” Higginbotham said of her conservative values.
Higginbotham reported campaign contributions totaling $125,726 by the Oct. 9 deadline.
Kelley said he does not always agree with state laws that become a part of his judicial decisions.
“But I believe in them,” Kelley said. “It is our job to apply the law, as written, to the facts of each case.”
In his campaign literature, Kelley says he has presided over a wide variety of criminal and civil cases, adding: “I have sentenced people to serve life terms in prison. And, yes, I have had to sentence one to death by lethal injection.”
Kelley went head-to-head with Higginbotham in 2010 when she beat him for the seat on the 1st Circuit that she now holds.
Kelley reported total contributions of $41,898 by Oct. 9.
There were 500,544 registered voters in District 5 as of Oct. 1, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Of that total, 47.7 percent are registered as Democrats. Another 28.9 percent signed as Republicans, and 23.4 percent are listed under “other parties.”
Similar numbers earlier in the year encouraged Democrat Mary Olive Pierson to enter the Supreme Court race without any experience on the bench.
Pierson, however, has been a trial attorney for more than four decades, and she has experience in local politics and public service that rivals some of the judges in the Supreme Court race.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Metropolitan Council appointed Pierson to serve as its member for Ward 1, District 5, for six months in 1982. She also served as chief administrative officer for the Office of Mayor President from 1983-85.
Like some of her opponents, Pierson is a past commissioner and chairwoman of the airport commission.
“I have spent 42 years of my career in the courts of this state … most of all, fighting for people who were underrepresented in the system,” Pierson said.
Pierson reported $289,403 in campaign contributions by Oct. 9. She was her largest contributor, granting loans totaling $212,303 to her cause.
“If you look at my contributions, I’m my favorite friend,” Pierson told the League of Women Voters.
Republican Judge Bill Morvant, of the 19th Judicial District Court, reported contributions that totaled $271,132. He did not lend any money to his campaign before Oct. 9.
Morvant also holds the endorsements of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Associated Builders and Contractors, and Louisiana Manufacturers Political Action Committee.
Morvant told the League of Women Voters that campaign contributors do not influence his judicial decisions.
“I take my oath of office very seriously,” Morvant said. “I apply the law as it is written. I do not legislate from the bench.”
No fair and impartial judge should be criticized for acceptance of campaign contributions, Morvant said.
“I’ve got the endorsement and backing” of business and industry groups, Morvant said. “I’m not ashamed.”
In addition to his judicial duties, Morvant works as an adjunct law professor at LSU.
Republican Judge Jeff Hughes, of the 1st Circuit, has 22 years of experience, combined, as a jurist at the district and appellate court levels. And he does not avoid expressing his opinions on hot-button issues when he is not in the courtroom.
Hughes said early in the campaign: “I am on record as pro-life, pro-gun and pro-traditional marriage.” He told the League of Women Voters: “I’m personally in favor of the death penalty.”
In one campaign statement, Hughes emphasized: “It is important to be able to discern true evil and lock it away for as long as possible — or to impose the death penalty, if needed.”
Hughes has experience in running for the Supreme Court. He was Kimball’s only opponent when she was re-elected to the high court in 2008.
Campaign finance statements Hughes filed this year show he had total contributions of $289,354 before Oct. 9. Of that total, $250,100 was money Hughes lent to his campaign.
Republican Judge Jewel E. “Duke” Welch, of the 1st Circuit, also serves as an adjunct professor of paralegal studies at LSU and teaches courses in law and business practices at Southern University.
Welch said he wants both to serve on the Supreme Court and make use of its administrative powers to improve Louisiana’s judicial system.
“The system we have now is excellent, but it can be better,” Welch said. “Our system takes too long and costs too much.”
Welch said he wants increased use of electronic technology to improve ease and speed of filing documents. He also said he wants to see more reliance on mediation of civil disputes.
His 32 years of service in several elected offices is the most of any candidate in the District 5 race.
Noting that 18 of those years have been served as a judge, Welch told the League of Women Voters: “People have trusted me.”
“You have to make sure you are fair and impartial,” to be a good judge, Welch said. “You are affecting people’s lives.”
Through Oct. 9, Welch had received $333,893 in contributions, including $100,000 he lent to his campaign.
Baton Rouge attorney Jeffry Sanford is the only no-party candidate seeking Kimball’s seat.
Sanford said he wants a moratorium against jailing nonviolent offenders with people accused or convicted of violent crimes.
He also advocates adoption of sentencing guidelines that would “require judges of this state to impose only token punishment for victimless crime.”
Sanford said people convicted of victimless crimes should be able to expunge their criminal records “if they remain conviction-free for three years.”
Sanford described what he considers victimless crimes: “Drug possession is the first that comes to mind,” Sanford said. “Drug distribution to consenting adults is another. Gambling-related offenses and prostitution by adults are others.”
Sanford is the only candidate in the Supreme Court race to have served six months of probation for resisting an officer.
When he joined his fellow candidates in agreeing not to wage a negative election campaign, he said: “Anybody who knows me knows I can’t afford to throw mud at anybody.”
Early voting opens Tuesday and continues through Oct. 30.