LAFAYETTE — Now that Mark Cockerham has stepped down from his School Board seat, the two women who challenged his residency status want to dismiss their lawsuit against him. But Cockerham still wants his day in court.
Cockerham wants to move forward with the scheduled Oct. 20 hearing on the lawsuit and his requests that the court sanction Nancy Cech and his opponent in the upcoming Nov. 4 election, Dawn Morris, for filing it.
In court filings, Cockerham claims that the two women improperly filed the suit and that Morris, specifically, did so for an “improper political purpose.”
Cockerham announced his resignation as a District 7 board member on Tuesday — a day after he received notice from Assistant District Attorney Jay Prather that he should vacate the seat within 10 days or face a lawsuit filed by the DA’s Office.
Cech, a former school administrator, filed the lawsuit in district court in early September challenging Cockerham’s current position on the board because he had moved out of District 7 and into District 9, based on district maps that remain in effect until January 2014.
Morris, who is an attorney, joined the suit a week later.
New redistricting maps, which take effect in January 2014, place Cockerham’s address in District 7 — so Cockerham is qualified to run for the District 7 seat.
However, he must vacate the seat for the remainder of his current term.
The women’s attorney, Bill Goode, filed papers Wednesday seeking to have the suit dismissed. Cockerham’s attorney said he contested the dismissal because the court still needs to address Cockerham’s requests for sanctions against the women.
“Mr. Cockerham did the right thing. He resigned, which is what he should have done a long time ago,” Goode said. “That issue is moot. It’s over. There’s nothing else to fight about.”
The request for sanctions is based on Article 863 of the Louisiana Constitution, which states that pleadings filed by an attorney or party must be grounded in fact, warranted by existing law and “not interposed for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation.”
Gary McGoffin, Cockerham’s attorney, said Morris and Cech had no right to bring the suit over Cockerham’s residency.
“State law provides that the DA bring that suit,” McGoffin said in a telephone interview. “It is not a private right of action. What’s the consequence to Mark Cockerham that he was named in a lawsuit that they did not have a right to bring?”
McGoffin also challenges whether Cech wrote the lawsuit and suspects that Morris drafted it for her. Initially, Cech filed the suit on her own without an attorney. Goode’s representation began after Morris joined the lawsuit.
“There’s an ethical prohibition for attorneys to ghostwrite proceedings, and that’s what Nancy Cech did,” McGoffin said. “Nancy Cech did not write that petition. It was written by an attorney. We want to find out who did that.”
Goode said McGoffin’s request for sanctions is “patently frivolous.”
He said Cockerham’s assertions about whether Cech wrote the lawsuit is a “red herring” and that “Cech had a right to challenge Mr. Cockerham’s hanging on to that seat when he didn’t have a right to do so.”
In court filings, Goode said the section of the Louisiana Constitution McGoffin referred to “is intended only for exceptional circumstances and is not to be used simply because parties disagree as to the correct resolution of a legal matter. … Failure to prevail also does not trigger a sanction award.”
State law identifies the district attorney as the proper official to bring suit against an office holder who no longer meets residency requirements, McGoffin wrote in court filings.
“In filing this lawsuit, Dawn Morris and her allies have forever burdened Mr. Cockerham with a public record lawsuit which they had no right to file,” McGoffin wrote. “As a result, Mr. Cockerham will have to address that lawsuit now and in the future every time he prepares a bank financial statement, employment or credit card applications, or even casual conversation.”
The suit also has been a distraction in the upcoming election, drawing voters attention “to a lawsuit that Dawn Morris had no right to bring. Simply dismissing this lawsuit will not cure the harm done,” McGoffin wrote.
Cockerham was initially appointed to the School Board in 2007 to fill the District 7 seat following the death of longtime board member David Thibodaux. He won the special election unopposed and won re-election in 2010.
In addition to his public announcement of his resignation made Tuesday, Cockerham must file official notice that he vacated the seat with the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office, which will in turn notify the School Board of the vacancy. Based on state law, the board has 20 days to fill a vacancy.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.