In a race against time, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration filed an emergency appeal Tuesday in its bid to abolish the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court seat held by indicted Judge Yolanda King.
Following a decision Monday by an East Baton Rouge Parish judge rejecting Landrieu’s request to keep King’s Section E seat off the ballot, the city petitioned the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal to reverse the ruling on the eve of the three-day candidate qualifying period that begins Wednesday.
Landrieu’s administration is scrambling to fully implement a law passed in June to reduce the number of judgeships in Juvenile Court from six to four. Landrieu pushed the law as a way to save the city money on a court that has seen a dramatic reduction in its caseload.
The law seems to target King’s seat under an amendment that says one of the seats would be eliminated in the case of a judge’s “disqualification from exercising any judicial function” pursuant to order of the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The state’s high court on May 15 suspended King, ruling her “disqualified from exercising any judicial function during the pendency of further proceedings against her.”
Landrieu is suing Secretary of State Tom Schedler and Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell, seeking an order to keep King’s seat off the ballot.
King’s suspension, with pay, came as Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office prosecutes her under an indictment alleging she was living at a house she owns in Slidell when she signed a sworn candidate statement last year listing a New Orleans domicile.
King has pleaded not guilty to a felony charge of filing a false public record and a misdemeanor election code violation, arguing that her prosecution is political. She appears to be the first Louisiana elected official to face criminal prosecution over a fairly common allegation that more often results in simple disqualification.
In its filing Tuesday, the city makes the same argument as the one 19th Judicial District Judge Wilson Fields rejected Monday — that the new law abolished King’s seat on Aug. 2, a day after it took effect.
Agreeing with an argument by Schedler’s office, Fields ruled that the state Supreme Court had not given notice to the governor that a vacancy on the court exists. The city essentially argues that the Supreme Court doesn’t need to declare a seat vacant when it no longer exists.
The city says it already has informed Juvenile Court that it will no longer fund King’s seat, which costs the city about $170,000 per year, largely in staff costs. Under the new law, one other Juvenile Court judgeship will disappear with the retirement of Judge Lawrence Lagarde Jr. at the end of the year.
The city says it needs fast word from the appeals court because of the qualifying period that ends Friday, noting that “ballots will be created immediately thereafter.”
In a 1980 Louisiana Supreme Court case out of New Orleans, the court found that “this court, on recommendation of the Judiciary Commission, has exclusive original jurisdiction to remove a judge from office.”
In pushing the new law, Landrieu apparently tried to avoid naming a specific section of Juvenile Court to be abolished — aside from Lagarde’s seat — in part because the state Constitution says the “term of office, retirement benefits and compensation of a judge shall not be decreased during the term for which he is elected.”
In the meantime, retired Plaquemines Parish Judge Michael Kirby has been appointed to preside over King’s criminal case. He has not set a trial date. Kirby rejected a bid last week by King’s attorney, Clarence Roby Jr., to quash the indictment.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.