Judge Mike Caldwell has handled an almost exclusive civil caseload for all but one of his nearly 18 years on the 19th Judicial District Court bench, a time-honored custom that Baton Rouge trial lawyer Randy Piedrahita wants to change if he’s able to unseat Caldwell in this fall’s election.
Currently at the 19th JDC, civil cases are randomly assigned to seven of the court’s 15 judges, while criminal cases are exclusively allotted to the other eight jurists.
“It’s like paying full price for half a judge,” Piedrahita said during a recent interview at the Jefferson Highway law offices of Dué, Price, Guidry, Piedrahita and Andrews. “The voters are not voting for half a judge. They want a full judge that hears civil and criminal cases.”
Piedrahita points to a provision — Article 5, Section 16 — in the 1974 Louisiana Constitution that says “a district court shall have original jurisdiction of all civil and criminal matters.”
Caldwell, who is facing his first challenger since his 1996 election, has no problem with constitutional pronouncement.
“Court means court as a whole, not an individual judge,” he said.
Caldwell insists that the way he and his 19th JDC colleagues separately handle civil and criminal cases is both constitutionally sound and legislatively authorized, and something that’s been done for more than four decades.
“It is much more efficient to do it that way,” he added. “It’s the only efficient way to see that justice is done.”
Piedrahita, who has 20 years of civil law practice and 10 years of voluntary law enforcement experience that includes being a commissioned deputy sheriff and a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office SWAT Team, believes he is uniquely qualified to hear civil and criminal cases.
“I want to hear both,” the 45-year-old Piedrahita said, adding that he’s not waging war on the 19th JDC.
“He’s indicting every judge up here, not just me,” the judge said, calling Piedrahita’s contention “a good sound bite.” Caldwell and Piedrahita are both Republicans, but the judge takes issue with Piedrahita’s departure two years ago from the Democratic Party. The judicial subdistrict that includes the Division I seat held by Caldwell is heavily GOP.
“I think his switch was a calculated plan to run against me,” the 65-year-old judge said.
Piedrahita, who said he changed parties before President Barack Obama was re-elected and opposed Obama in that election, defends his political affiliation.
“Just like Ronald Reagan, I came around late in life,” he said, adding that he has been a member of the National Rifle Association since 2003 and is a pro-life Southern Baptist who attends Parkview Baptist Church.
Piedrahita also stressed that judges are not supposed to be partisan.
Caldwell, a Christian and member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, touts his conservative judicial philosophy and said he’s comfortable running on his reputation as being honest, impartial, fair, prepared and doing everything with integrity.
“I’m more than happy to run on my reputation. I’m proud of what I’ve done over the past 18 years,” he said.
Caldwell said he applies the constitution and the law as written and does not cater to individual interests.
“I try to play it straight,” he said.
Piedrahita said he tossed his hat in the ring because he’s concerned about crime in East Baton Rouge Parish, particularly repeat violent offenders, drug dealers and sexual offenders.
“Law enforcement needs as much help from the bench as it can get,” he said.
Piedrahita takes Caldwell to task for his handling of a long-running criminal case involving former LSU, McNeese State and Miami Dolphins running back Cecil “The Diesel” Collins.
Collins, who was accused of forcing his way into the apartments of two women who lived in a Nicholson Drive complex and fondling them in 1998, pleaded guilty in April 1999 to two felony counts of unauthorized entry of an inhabited dwelling and two misdemeanor counts of simple battery.
Caldwell gave Collins a suspended five-year prison term and put him on probation for four years.
While on probation, Collins sneaked into his neighbors’ apartment in Miami in December 1999. He was convicted in 2001 of burglary in that case and served more than 13 years in a Florida prison.
After his May 2013 release from prison, Collins was transferred to Baton Rouge and taken into custody for possible revocation of his Louisiana probation. The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office pushed for Caldwell to revoke Collins’ probation and send him back to prison, but the judge earlier this year put Collins on probation for an extra three years for violating that probation.
Piedrahita called Caldwell’s actions “offensive.”
“That is the kind of stuff as a judge I’m going to pound,” he said.
Caldwell said Collins’ Florida sentence took into account his Louisiana crimes. The judge also noted that Collins married while imprisoned and is now working in that state.
“I felt that putting him back in jail would just be exacting a pound of flesh at the expense of taxpayers” who pay for incarceration, he said.
In recent years, Caldwell has been somewhat of a thorn in the side of Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The judge twice struck down a Jindal-pushed 2012 law — the second time after the Louisiana Supreme Court vacated his first ruling and told him to take another look — that made it more difficult for public-school teachers to earn and retain tenure. He ruled both times that the act illegally included multiple topics in a single bill. The case is on appeal at the state high court.
“I applied the constitution as it’s written,” the judge said.
Caldwell also shot down a 2010 state law, signed by the governor, that would let school districts seek four-year waivers from some education laws and rules in an effort to improve student achievement. The judge concluded the law was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The state Supreme Court in 2012 reversed Caldwell without passing judgment on the constitutionality of the Red Tape Reduction and Local Empowerment Act. The high court said a Louisiana Federation of Teachers lawsuit challenging the act’s legality was premature.