The only two open seats on the 21st Judicial District Court have each drawn three candidates for the Nov. 4 primary election, while seven incumbents were re-elected without opposition.
The court, which covers Livingston, Tangipahoa and St. Helena parishes, has six general jurisdiction divisions that hear both civil and criminal cases, one juvenile court division and two recently formed family court divisions.
Russell Beall, Mike Betts and Jeff Johnson are seeking election to the Division A general jurisdiction seat vacated by Judge Wayne Ray Chutz’s election to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.
Meanwhile, Jeff Cashe, Jenel Guidry Secrease and C. Glenn Westmoreland are squaring off for the new Division J family court seat.
All six candidates are Republicans and attorneys practicing in the district.
Russell Beall, 48, is a founding partner in the Baton Rouge law firm of Beall & Thies LLC, where his practice focuses primarily on litigation. He also has served as a small claims arbitrator for Baton Rouge City Court.
Beall said because he has never been a prosecutor and his firm has never depended on criminal defense work, he would be “the most balanced, cleanest set of eyes” on the bench.
He said he is running for judge because “people need to feel (court is) more accessible and not that they’re getting dropped into a machine where things are happening around them.”
Beall has taught numerous continuing legal education courses, as well as teaching ethics and professionalism to students at LSU Law School, where he graduated in 2001.
Beall said it was his desire to set a good example for his students that led him to volunteer for a public reprimand after the state’s attorney disciplinary board questioned the way he and his former employer, L.D. Sledge, split fees on cases Beall took over after Sledge’s disbarment.
“I wanted to show young lawyers that you shouldn’t run from it, even if it’s a hypertechnical, small mistake,” Beall said.
He noted that the board never filed any charges in his case.
Beall lives in Denham Springs with his wife, Kathi Logan, a lawyer with the state Attorney General’s Office, and three children.
Jeff Johnson, 45 and a former part-time assistant district attorney with the 21st Judicial District, said he’s running for judge to continue his public service and help return to younger generations — including his sons, ages 10, 12 and 14 — the kind of security he enjoyed growing up.
“I could leave the top down on my old ’65 Mustang convertible, keys on the dash, while I went to work and return at the end of the day to find everything undisturbed,” Johnson said. “It’s not like that anymore. Now we live in a world of alarms and security cameras, and we’re still subject to the activities of criminals.”
Johnson said serving as a prosecutor for the past 20 years since he received his law degree from LSU puts him at a distinct advantage in knowing how to manage a courtroom.
“Criminal trials in particular can be very emotional, such as with rape or murder trials, and you have to know how to recognize that and how to deal with it. I’m the only one (in the race) who’s done that,” he said.
Johnson took a leave of absence from the District Attorney’s Office when he qualified to run for this judge’s seat.
Johnson previously ran Cypress Title Services and did a significant amount of real estate work, but closed shop on that area of his practice in late 2013 when he joined Christopher Moody’s Hammond law firm. Johnson said he now helps Moody in representing various public bodies, including the Livingston Parish Council and Tangipahoa Parish School Board.
Efforts to reach Michael Betts for comment were not successful.
Jenel Guidry Secrease, 35, grew up in Ponchatoula and returned there to practice law after graduating in 2004 from LSU Law School.
Her 10 years of practice have been spent almost exclusively in family law, working with another attorney until 2008 when she started her own firm.
Married with two sons, ages 3 and 5, Secrease said she has never been involved in politics before and would not have run had there not been an opening for a family court judge.
The daughter of an electrician and a housewife, and the wife of an auto mechanic, Secrease described herself as “just an average Joe who understands the people that will come before me (in court) because I’m living the same lifestyle.”
“Everybody gets a fair chance,” Secrease said. “I’m literally the least political person you’ve ever met.”
Glenn Westmoreland, 52, said he has experienced many of the same life changes as people going through the family court system, including adopting children, getting divorced and being a single parent.
“Pretty much whatever comes before me, I’ve experienced in life and can empathize with people,” he said. “But my primary concern will always be the children and what’s best for them, not necessarily what mom and dad want.”
He and his wife, JoAnn, between them have eight children, ages 9 to 32, and six grandchildren.
Westmoreland, who grew up in Albany and now lives in Livingston, has practiced law in the 21st Judicial District since graduating from LSU Law School at the age of 22. He also served as an assistant district attorney under Duncan Kemp in the late 1980s and, more recently, as Walker town magistrate on occasion when needed, he said.
In 2008, Westmoreland ran unsuccessfully against Blair Downing Edwards for the district’s juvenile court judgeship, which at the time had just been created. He also ran unsuccessfully against Judge Zoey Waguespack in 2002 for a general jurisdiction seat in Division H.
Jeff Cashe did not respond to messages seeking comments for this story.
Judges Bruce Bennett, Bob Morrison, Doug Hughes, Brenda Ricks and Beth Wolfe were re-elected without opposition to the general jurisdiction seats in Divisions B, C, D, E and F, respectively.
Judge Blair Edwards maintained her Division I juvenile court seat, and Judge Jeff Oglesbee won re-election to the district’s new Division K family court seat.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.