LAFAYETTE — During a debate Monday, each of the three candidates vying for the open Division M seat on the 15th Judicial District Court offered a slightly different take on how to reduce wait times and heavy caseloads in family court.
Attorneys Kay Karré Gautreaux, Marshall Montgomery and Susan Theall all participated in a debate sponsored by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette chapter of Society of Professional Journalists.
The three Republican candidates are seeking to fill a vacancy left by Phyllis Montgomery Keaty, who was elected to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal last year. The primary is scheduled for Oct. 22. A runoff, if needed, will be held Nov. 19.
The 15th Judicial District encompasses Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes.
“We need to return to what we did when we originally started family court, which is to have matters heard within the first three weeks,” said Theall, who was among the group of lawyers who helped found family court in 1999.
Theall said the caseloads have increased, but family court still has two judges and three hearing officers — who help to expedite family court matters — the same number as when the court was founded.
Theall suggested a three-prong approach to reducing family law caseloads: implementing a super docket to rapidly handle simple matters; hiring another hearing officer; and adding one or two new judges.
“If parents don’t get quick relief, their anxiety level rises, they get angry with each other and things blow up,” she said.
Gautreaux said she believes the two-tiered process of hearing officers and judges “has caused a great deal of delay.”
“I believe there needs to be a weighing of the cases” because not every case needs the same time and attention,” she said.
A mechanism needs to be in place to separate those cases that can be moved along quickly from the weighted cases that likely will only be solved before a judge, Gautreaux said.
“I’m 100 percent committed to making some changes to fix what I feel is the problem and that’s needless delays and exorbitant expenses to the parties,” she said.
Montgomery said the court’s resources are strained and that some of the processes in place need to be tweaked.
Montgomery said one way to speed some cases along would be to ask the parties to discuss their disputes before appearing in court.
“Oftentimes it is a very small thing that’s in dispute that just kind of bleeds over into the rest of the matters,” he said. “So, if you can get that one thing fixed, then maybe it goes away.”
During her rebuttal, Theall said orders requiring lawyers to discuss cases beforehand are currently in place but are not being enforced.
Theall added that lawyers interested in getting cases to court quicker can request a hearing before a judge.
Theall said she’s a proponent of Lafayette’s family court system, but she advocates tweaking it.
Gautreaux countered that she believes the court is in need “of someone with a fresh perspective.”
“I think we need a fresh look,” he said. “I think we need a fresh set of eyes. I think we need someone who is willing to say, ‘Well let’s see if there’s another way to get this done.’”
Asked for their thoughts on campaign spending, Gautreaux and Theall both said the candidates have spent less than last year’s appellate court race.
“We do as much as we feel is necessary to get our message across and no more than that,” Gautreaux said.
Theall said she felt there was too much money spent in the 3rd Circuit Court race.
“It was really kind of obscene,” Theall said.
Montgomery said talking about the amount of money he has spent is “nauseating.”
He said it was “mind-boggling” how much money he has had to spend.
He joked that he wished the three candidates could have gotten together and agreed to spend a set amount, like $100, “but that’s just not the American way.”
The candidates were questioned by Mike Magnoli, a reporter with KATC-TV 3; Zane Hill, managing editor of ULL’s The Vermilion; Kris Wartele, a reporter with The Daily Advertiser and Emily Henagan, a reporter for The Independent Weekly.
The debate was moderated by Robert Buckman, faculty adviser of the ULL chapter of Society of Professional Journalists.