What began as a five-candidate field is now down to a two-man race, with longtime Southern University Law Center professor Cleveland Coon battling one of his former students, ex-prosecutor Beau Higginbotham, for the right to sit on the 19th Judicial District Court bench for the next six years.
Coon, a 60-year-old Democrat, and Higginbotham, a 40-year-old Republican, are touting their respective experience leading up to the Dec. 6 runoff election to replace retiring state District Judge Kay Bates.
Coon, who has taught at the SU Law Center since 1989, also cites his prior work as an assistant state attorney general and East Baton Rouge Parish public defender.
“I do think in this case age and experience should prevail,” said a confident Coon, who led the Nov. 4 primary with nearly 43 percent of the ballots cast, or 21,751 votes.
Higginbotham, who spent 11 years as a prosecutor in the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office while maintaining a civil and family law practice, finished second in the primary with 14,754 votes — or 29 percent of the ballots cast — and is equally trustful that Division M’s voters will promote him to the judiciary.
“This election comes down to experience. I’ve been in the courtroom. I have that trial experience. I’ll put my record against anybody’s,” said the son of state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Toni Higginbotham and former 19th JDC Judge Leo Higginbotham.
The primary election was largely cordial among Coon, Higginbotham and three other Republican lawyers — Mike Davis, Jamie Morain Zanovec and Chris Oetjens, who finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively.
But with the field narrowed to two, Coon and Higginbotham have focused on each other’s qualifications.
“Experience and maturity can outweigh youth,” Coon contended. “I don’t say that to disparage Mr. Higginbotham.”
Higginbotham pointed out that his former professor has been in the classroom for the past 25 years.
“He’s been teaching in a law school,” Higginbotham noted.
As for Coon’s life experiences, Higginbotham said, “That’s not what prepares people to be judges.”
Coon charged that Higginbotham’s prosecutorial experience was primarily limited to handling misdemeanor cases, but Higginbotham, who worked under former District Attorney Doug Moreau and current District Attorney Hillar Moore III, said he handled everything from murders to drug cases to DWIs to domestic abuse to theft, “you name it.”
Coon said he remembers Higginbotham as a bright student who was prepared when called upon.
“My memories of him are fond memories,” the law professor said. “I’m very pleased at what he’s accomplished.”
Higginbotham described Coon as a good man and added, “I have nothing bad to say about him.”
The Division M seat encompasses the cities of Baker, Central and Zachary, as well as the north East Baton Rouge Parish area including Sherwood Forest.
Coon bested Higginbotham by 7,000 votes in the primary, but Republicans Davis, Zanovec and Oetjens picked up a combined 14,400-plus votes.
Both Coon and Higginbotham said they hope voters don’t merely cast their ballots along party lines.
“It’s never been a party issue to me,” said Higginbotham, who has the backing of police unions in Baton Rouge and Zachary and the Greater Baton Rouge AFL-CIO. “I’m asking everybody for their vote.”
“I don’t know if party affiliation will be a determining factor. It very well may be,” Coon said, noting that Davis is backing him. “I hope it comes down to who’s the better qualified.”