21st JDC judge to retire at the end of 2015 after almost three decades on the bench _lowres

21st Judicial District Court Judge Bruce Bennett

After nearly three decades on the bench, Judge Bruce Bennett will retire from the 21st Judicial District Court at the end of this year.

Bennett announced his intentions just six months into the six-year term he won without opposition in November. A special election will be held, likely in the spring, to fill the seat.

“Even though you hate to walk away from an unexpired term, there is no right time to make this kind of decision,” Bennett said Tuesday. “I always knew when the time came, I would know it’s time to leave. I would much rather leave office with people saying they want you to stay, you’ve done a great job, than to stay five years too long and have people say you lost it or your mind is going.”

Bennett first joined the bench in 1988 after a special election to replace retired Judge Gordon Causey. He is one of the longest-serving judges currently with the 21st Judicial District, along with Chief Judge Bob Morrison, who described Bennett as “a delight to work with, a good friend and a good colleague whom I’ll miss.”

Bennett, 62, said the world has changed dramatically — both legally and socially — since he graduated from law school in 1975.

At the time, Louisiana still had a “head and master rule” on the books, designating men as the heads of their households and giving them control over all the property, he said.

That notion of marriage ended, as a legal premise, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional in 1982 — a decision Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited during a hearing in late April as evidence that the definition of marriage is continually evolving and perhaps ought to include same-sex marriage.

“The court is about to decide whether the right to marry is a fundamental right,” Bennett said. “I’m not commenting as to whether that’s good or bad; it just is what it is. But I’ve lived in a generation that has seen such dramatic social changes.”

Bennett also witnessed significant changes as the drug court judge for Livingston Parish — a volunteer duty he described as both his mission and a blessing.

“In the ’60s, people would toke up on this or that, but then they would straighten out after a couple years,” Bennett said. “Now there’s heroin on every street corner, and the drug problem is probably more serious than the general public knows and understands.”

Bennett said he will miss his work in drug court because it is one of the few avenues in which judges can actively intervene in people’s lives and make real, positive and long-lasting changes.

“What we’ve learned about drug courts is that mandated rehab works,” he said. “The statistics and data are in, and it’s no longer a matter of speculation.”

Bennett said his greatest hope is that he has made a difference in the lives of the people who came before him and that his fellow judges will “rise to the occasion and operate this specialty court with the same care and concern that has made it such a blessing to me.”

Bennett, whose wife, Linda, retired as a court reporter about seven years ago, said he’s “definitely not going to ride off into the sunset” just yet. He plans to work as a mediator, perhaps with a local law firm, after he leaves the bench.

“Even as a judge, I always thought that if people could create justice between themselves, it would be more helpful,” he said. “Then they would be more invested in it, and it would be more likely to work.”

District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said Bennett’s thoughtfulness on the bench made him an asset to the district, which serves Livingston, Tangipahoa and St. Helena Parishes. “(Bennett is) a very consistent, fair-minded thinker who has always been fair and just in his approach to business with the court. I hate to see him leave our bench.”

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, or call her at (225) 336-6981.