Years ago, as Loyola Law professor Bill Quigley once recounted to PBS’ Bill Moyers, the Louisiana state supreme court commissioned a poll asking people whether they believed politics played a role in the judiciary. This, it turned out, was an exercise in futility, because instead of getting a simple “yes” or “no” answer, most respondents just broke out in laughter.
“(F)rom the point of view of the people who had lawyers last year and can’t get lawyers next year, this is not about electoral politics. This is about justice,” Quigley told Moyers nearly twenty years ago. “This is about somebody slamming the courthouse door shut, locking it and nailing it shut and excluding a large group of people from ever getting to court.”
Unfortunately, not much has changed in the past twenty years, though the passage of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ signature package of criminal justice reform legislation has already resulted in notable improvements. Louisiana is no longer the prison capital of the world; that ignoble title now belongs to Oklahoma.
Equally as important, when voters head to the polls next Tuesday, they will decide what is arguably the most consequential and important amendment proposed since the “new” state constitution became effective law on January 1, 1975: Whether or not Louisiana should end the practice of allowing non-unanimous jury verdicts to result in guilty convictions. Right now, Louisiana is the only state in the nation in which a person can be sentenced to death even if two members of their jury believed there was reasonable doubt of that person’s guilt. As we recommended previously, we encourage all voters to approve Constitutional Amendment #2- that is, vote yes- so that Louisiana can finally rid itself of one of the ugliest vestiges of the Jim Crow era and ensure our judicial system matches the principles set forth in our nation’s founding documents.
To those outside of Orleans Parish, it may seem strange that two elections for clerk of court- one for First City Court and the other for Civil District Court- would be the most heated contests on the ballot. Although clerks of court are often county-wide (or parish-wide) elected positions across the nation, it may also seem strange that Orleans Parish, unlike every other parish in the state, doesn’t just have one clerk of court; it has four.
The job title- “clerk”- may create the misimpression that the position is entirely ministerial and that clerks of court wield very little power over the administration of justice or the policies and practices of the courts. This is not true. Clerks can be tremendously powerful gatekeepers of the judiciary, and perhaps just as importantly, the perverse way in which their offices are funded creates opportunities for exploitation and abuse.
There is a simple reason these two races have become the most heated- money, and it is the reason is why we recommend both Timothy David Ray for the First City Court and Jared Brossett for Civil District Court. The job demands people who demonstrate, above anything else, a commitment to public integrity.
Timothy David Ray
Ray decided to pursue public service for the first time only a year ago, when he ran a grassroots campaign for the District B seat on the New Orleans City Council, which became an open contest after incumbent Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell decided to run for mayor. Ray, who had previously been a behind-the-scenes political strategist, was up against enormous odds, facing five opponents, two of whom possessed vastly more resources and significantly higher name recognition.
But he campaigned fiercely, and more importantly, he demonstrated a much deeper understanding of public policy issues than any of his opponents, which earned him a surprise endorsement from Gambit, prior to its acquisition by The Advocate. Ultimately, though, Ray finished third and missed the run-off election by three points. There is some evidence that Ray’s decision to support second-place finisher Jay Banks was the reason Banks ultimately prevailed over frontrunner Seth Bloom. In other words, despite Ray’s loss, he had established an influential voice in the district.
Timothy David Ray is a lawyer and a law professor, and when Ellen Hazeur, the longtime clerk for the First City Court, won an election for district judge, she appointed him as her interim replacement. By all accounts, it is clearly a job well-suited for his talents and legal knowledge.
A couple of months ago, as he ramped up his campaign for a full-term as clerk, a brochure he printed and distributed concerning the eviction process, which is a part of the First City Court’s responsibilities, became the subject of controversy. His opponent, Austin Badon, accused him of abusing his office in order to promote himself, and at least one of the judges on the court claimed Ray’s brochure was legally inaccurate.
We looked into these claims extensively, because, again, integrity is the most critical characteristic for any candidate seeking this position. The truth is that Ray’s brochure was entirely accurate and well-considered. He relied on the legal guidance of two different law school clinics and organizations in crafting the brochure’s language. Ray was legally correct; the judge, however, was embarrassingly wrong. Badon’s allegation that a brochure about eviction law was campaign literature was nothing more than absurd grandstanding.
There is a reason people laughed when pollsters asked whether politics played a role in the judiciary.
We are entirely unconvinced by former state Rep. Austin Badon’s motivations for entering this campaign and, with a few notable exceptions, unimpressed with his record in the legislature, where he was too frequently aligned with former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Badon’s calls for the National Guard to patrol the streets of New Orleans were deeply problematic, and his support for a law that required families to keep pregnant women who are medically braindead (and legally dead) alive through the use of life support technology for as long as seven months strikes us as incomprehensibly cruel and thoughtless. Another publication endorsed Badon based solely on his relationships with others in politics and, most incredulously, a belief that he would prioritize helping provide legal assistance to those in need. We see no evidence of such a strong commitment in his record, but we do note a dramatic decrease in his income since his departure from the state House of Representatives, according to personal financial disclosures filed with the Louisiana Ethics Administration.
Timothy David Ray’s campaign has emphasized the need to inform the public about their rights in court; Badon’s most notable mail piece referenced his assistance in locating the dead bodies of two missing persons, which is commendable but totally irrelevant to the position he seeks.
We recommend the candidate who has a command of the law, a commitment to public service, and a demonstrated record of promoting progressive values and a fair and equitable justice system, Timothy David Ray.
Our recommendation for Jared Brossett does not require the same type of introduction, because, by now, most voters in Orleans Parish are familiar with Brossett, who served as a state representative for District 97 and now represents the people of District D on the New Orleans City Council. Brossett has a clean and impressive resume and record and has consistently demonstrated a thoughtful, inclusive leadership style, which is perhaps best reflected by the fact that he won re-election by an overwhelming 80% of the vote.
The challenges he faces, if he is successful in his campaign for Clerk of the Orleans Parish Civil District Court, cannot be understated. The previous clerk, Dale Atkins, earned an astonishing $244,000 in total compensation during her final year in office, more than twice as much as the previous clerk of the First City Court. (Atkins is now also a judge).
Atkins’ hand-picked replacement and Brossett’s opponent, Interim Clerk Chelsea Richard Napoleon, had previously served as the office’s chief deputy, which typically should be considered a plus. However, a recent auditor’s report of the office is so damning that it’s difficult to excuse or overlook.
The office is in need of a complete change in culture, a clean house, and if Brossett is willing to tackle such a challenge, he deserves the chance.