The four lawyers — one Democrat and three Republicans — vying for a new at-large seat on the Baton Rouge City Court are each touting their legal and life experiences and how they would conduct themselves on the bench.
The field includes Whitney Higginbotham Greene, on leave without pay from the state Attorney General’s Office while she campaigns; Grant Miller, a former assistant city prosecutor who resigned his post last month when he qualified to run; Tarvald Smith, vice president of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board and a public defender in Baker City Court; and Jeff Wittenbrink, a board-certified family law specialist whose 28 years of law practice have taken him to local, state and federal courts.
Smith is the lone Democrat.
“I would hope that, regardless of party lines, people would look at the candidates’ experience,” he said.
Lawyer Tiffany Foxworth, also a Democrat, qualified to run for the City Court post but later withdrew. Her name will not appear on the ballot.
The election is Oct. 24, but early voting began Saturday and runs through Oct. 17. If needed, a runoff would be held Nov. 21.
The winner will fill the remainder of retiring City Court Judge Alex “Brick” Wall’s term, which expires at the end of 2018. Wall announced his retirement in February but was appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court to remain until the special election.
The new citywide at-large seat was approved by the Legislature in June in response to a 2012 federal civil rights lawsuit that alleged it was past time to change the racial makeup of City Court because the city’s population is now majority black. A federal judge had ruled against the suit’s plaintiffs but urged state lawmakers to update City Court’s boundaries and election setup so they would reflect the city’s changing racial demographics.
Smith is the only black candidate in the City Court election.
Greene, the daughter of state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Toni Higginbotham and sister of 19th Judicial District Judge Beau Higginbotham, has spent the past six years as an assistant state attorney general, the last 2½ years prosecuting cases in the 19th Judicial District Court.
“I will put my years of legal practice up against anybody,” the 44-year-old Greene said.
Miller, 42, said he has been working in front of the City Court judges for the past seven years and would be able to hit the ground running if elected.
“I’m the only candidate with any real City Court experience,” he stated. “You need to know how the system works. You don’t want someone learning on the job.”
Smith, 45, is a former prosecutor for the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office.
“I think I’m the best qualified, given my vast experience,” he said, also referring to his 11 years on the School Board, his private law practice and his work as a public defender in Baker.
Smith said he began his legal career in the mid-1990s with the East Baton Rouge Parish Public Defender’s Office working as a student attorney in Baton Rouge City Court.
“Great experience,” he said.
Wittenbrink, 55, is the elder statesman in the race.
“I have the longest and broadest experience of any of the candidates,” he said.
Wittenbrink said he has seen both good and bad judges while practicing his trade.
“I know what kind of judge I don’t want to be,” he said, adding that he has a record of public service with the Kiwanis Club and Boy Scouts, and caring for people and the community.
Greene, who called City Court the people’s court, said she knows precisely what kind of a judge she would be.
“I love people, and I’m approachable,” she said, adding that she would treat those who come before her with the respect and dignity they deserve. “I think I would be firm but fair.”
Miller said he is known for his even-keel temperament.
“Treating people the right way when they come in is very important to me,” he said.
Smith said his School Board service has kept him in touch with the community at large and the plight of people. There would be times, he said of his possible judicial role, when probation would be an appropriate sentence and other times when a harsher penalty would be necessary.
“There will be times when we’ll have to be firm,” he said.
Wittenbrink, who said City Court is amazingly busy and efficient, has proposed a night court one night a week or a Saturday court once a month to increase the court’s efficiency and to help those who cannot afford to take time away from work to come to court.
Miller noted that 126,000 cases were filed in City Court last year, including more than 90,000 traffic tickets, and suggests allowing people to take care of those tickets on the Internet to lighten the crush of people coming to the courthouse. He also supports night or afternoon court.
Greene, who said she is open-minded to good ideas, pledged to stay in court each day until every person is taken care of.
“The night court and weekend court ideas may not ever become reality because of things beyond the control of the five judges,” she said, “but I will go out of my way to accommodate the public and to improve the perception that City Court is not efficient.”
Smith said he would support a pilot program, if funding allowed it, to explore a night court.