Candidates line up for Orleans Parish court seats

With less than three weeks to go before candidates qualify for a slew of Orleans Parish judicial seats, the season of fundraising and glad-handing is hitting full stride, with hopefuls keying on a handful of potentially inviting spots at several local courts.

Criminal District Court

At Criminal District Court, where no incumbent has lost a re-election bid in several decades, most eyes are on the Section G seat held since 1997 by Julian Parker, amid whispers that the often irascible jurist may not run again.

Parker, who has undisclosed health problems, filed papers last week for a sick leave through the end of August. Reached by telephone, he declined to say whether he’ll run, telling a reporter, “Please don’t call me anymore.”

In the meantime, several hopefuls appear to be eyeing the seat. Among them is Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens. A 17-year veteran of Municipal Court, Sens, 58, has faced his own health issues, which were believed to be a factor in his stepping down as chief judge there in 2012.

He also has weathered criticism from Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office over allegations of nepotism in court hiring and over his hiring of Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s wife, Renee Gusman, to do drug counseling for the court around the same time Gusman hired Sens’ wife, Ann Sens, to do pre-foreclosure appraisals for the Sheriff’s Office.

Sens’ brother John Sens was Gusman’s purchasing director before he resigned amid a federal investigation that led to a guilty plea and a five-year federal prison sentence. Judge Sens has never been charged or implicated in the federal probe.

Also considering a run for Section G are Byron C. Williams, a former Orleans Parish prosecutor who is counsel to the president of Southern University, and Lionel “Lon” Burns,” a defense lawyer and former prosecutor who has run for judge before.

The stage also is set for a showdown over the Section D Criminal Court seat held for 40 years by Judge Frank Marullo, who faces at least one challenger: Graham Bosworth, a 35-year-old defense attorney and former Orleans Parish prosecutor.

The biggest challenge for Marullo may be his age. He turns 75 on Dec. 31, and he faces a likely legal challenge over whether he’s too old to run. The Louisiana Constitution sets an age limit of 70 for judges, but Marullo claims he falls under the 1921 constitution, which at the time he was first elected had an age limit of 75 for judges, and he insists he’s good to go for another six-year term.

“I just don’t know what I would do with myself if I wasn’t there,” he said.

Bosworth has said he sought Marullo’s blessing more than a year ago, and the judge said then he didn’t think he could run again. Marullo’s now in the race, but Bosworth has said he doesn’t think the state’s longest-serving judge is eligible.

Civil District Court

In Civil District Court, lawyer Nakisha Ervin-Knott has launched a challenge for the Division D seat held for three terms by Judge Lloyd Medley Jr., who has not declared his intentions.

Ervin-Knott, who lost to Clare Jupiter in a 2011 runoff for the seat vacated when Madeleine Landrieu joined the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, said her practice focuses on personal injury, medical malpractice and some class-action suits, typically on the plaintiffs’ side.

“We never stopped campaigning, never stopped engaging the community,” Ervin-Knott, 39, said. “And as I looked at the lay of the land, initially we thought this was a judge who was not going to run.”

Medley could not be reached.

In the meantime, a host of candidates have their sights set on a pair of Civil District Court seats that are now dedicated permanently to family law after a 2011 state law did away with a system under which the newest Civil Court judges presided over domestic cases before moving up to the court’s regular docket when vacancies occurred.

Judge Bernadette D’Souza, the first to win election to one of the permanent Family Court judgeships in 2012, will face a challenge from private attorney Taetrece Harrison.

Harrison, 46, attended Southern University Law School and returned to New Orleans in 2008 to run her own law firm, focusing largely on family cases in New Orleans and Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes, according to her political consultant, Dee Dee Edmonson.

Edmonson said Harrison chose to run against D’Souza rather than challenge a big field for the other Family Court seat: the Division H seat left available when Judge Michael Bagneris stepped down to run a failed campaign to unseat Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Candidates in that field include longtime family law attorney and former CourtWatch Nola director Janet Ahern; former Traffic Court candidate Richard Perque; 17-year family law practitioner and Loyola Law School graduate Michelle Scott-Bennett; and Monique Barial, Civil District Judge Christopher Bruno’s minute clerk for the past five years.

Each of them said they see the role of Family Court judge as a special one, requiring a different kind of temperament and skills to handle cases in which most litigants represent themselves. The court handles cases involving child custody and support, divorce and protective orders.

Ahern, 53, who qualified to run against D’Souza in 2011 but withdrew from the race, said a Family Court judgeship has “always kind of been the goal” for her. She said having dedicated judgeships will help. “I don’t think the (regular Civil District Court) judges didn’t do good work. The issue really is the continuity,” Ahern said, adding that she aims to prioritize custody cases.

Perque also said sitting on the bench in Family Court has long been his goal, although he lost a dirt-filled race last year for a judgeship at Traffic Court. “This is the seat that I’ve always wanted, to be completely honest,” said Perque, 35, a lawyer for eight years. “The bulk of my practice is family law. This is what I do. This is where I think people need the most help.”

Scott-Bennett, 43, touts her experience in the court. “I have seen what the Family Court bench deals with day to day. One of the major problems is we are always getting the freshly elected judges. A lot of times, they do not have a lot of experience. They’re learning as they’re going, and we end up with a revolving door of new judges,” she said. “I’m not looking to move up at all. I would not have run for any other type of seat.”

Barial, 43, resigned Friday from her court job to run for the post, she said. Having worked as a minute clerk while Bruno oversaw domestic cases for four years, she said, she’s seen it all. “You come across pretty much every type of case: those who can’t afford attorneys, those who can but choose not to, those that have the more expensive attorneys. You still have to be fair to all sides. It’s a unique balancing act,” she said.

Juvenile Court

Meanwhile, things are shaping up for a heated but confusing race for one Juvenile Court judgeship.

Yolanda King, who won a seat on the bench last year after Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier moved to Criminal Court, is running again.

On her new campaign website, she pledges “to continue upholding the law; protecting the public; enforcing the rights of crime victims; and holding those that break the law accountable, with wisdom, and compassion.”

Yet King, who scored a surprising runoff victory last year after four failed bids for office, is under indictment, accused by state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office of lying about where she lived when she qualified to run last year.

The Louisiana Supreme Court has since barred her from taking the bench while she’s being prosecuted, and a new state law aimed at reducing the size of Juvenile Court by two judgeships appears to place her seat in jeopardy of being jettisoned.

One of King’s opponents last year, attorney Cynthia Samuel, has said she is entering the race.

Samuel, who raised complaints about King’s residency before and after losing in the primary, worked briefly as a prosecutor briefly before starting a two-decade career largely doing juvenile and family law.

She said she didn’t want to run against an incumbent but added, “I consider (King) a very weak incumbent.”

Also possibly running for King’s seat is Clint Smith, who lost a close race to Steven Jupiter last year for a Traffic Court seat.

Smith, a private attorney who has served as an ad hoc judge in Juvenile Court, said he is still sorting out the legal issues surrounding King and what it means for the future of her seat on the bench.

“I’m interested in the Juvenile Court seat. I think I can make a significant difference there,” he said. “But with all of the issues occurring, I’m not sure what the status is with respect to the juvenile bench. It’s a convoluted situation right now.”

Like other possible candidates, Smith has only a little time to decide. The qualifying period runs Aug. 20-22.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.