Fresh off his re-election to the Orleans Parish Civil District Court bench, Judge Chris Bruno has asked a fellow judge to fine and consider jailing Ruth Ramsey, Bruno’s challenger in the Nov. 4 race. Bruno claims Ramsey “flagrantly disregarded” a restraining order by reissuing an attack ad even as voters cast their ballots on Election Day.
Bruno won a second six-year term by a comfortable margin, garnering 56 percent of the vote. But instead of letting “bygones be bygones,” he filed a motion Friday asking interim Civil District Court Judge Lynn Luker to hold Ramsey and her campaign spokesman in contempt of court “out of principle,” said Nat Kiefer, Bruno’s attorney.
“What was done here was deliberate and completely unbecoming of a judicial candidate who’s supposed to know the law,” Kiefer said. “(Bruno) is just tired of this situation where candidates can say and do whatever they want. They can lie, they can violate court orders, they can do anything they want to get elected, and there’s no deterrent to further abuses.”
The dispute began with a pamphlet, circulated by the Ramsey campaign in the final days of the race, that accused Bruno of attempting to close down the historic Algiers Courthouse and “cut off services to the West Bank.” The advertisement referred to a failed legislative push that it dubbed “the Bruno bill,” claiming Bruno sought “from his first day in office” to shutter the courthouse.
“Bruno wanted to sacrifice the people of Algiers for his own political gain,” stated the pamphlet, purportedly signed by Van Howenstine, a small-business owner in Algiers.
The ad indicated it had been paid for by the Committee to Elect Ruth Ramsey and referenced Senate Bill 787, legislation offered by state Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, during the 2010 legislative session that proposed to abolish the 2nd City Court in Algiers.
Bruno said calling it “the Bruno bill” was misleading because he had nothing to do with it.
Kevin Stuart, president of Teddlie Stuart Media Partners, which represented Ramsey, maintained the campaign had conducted “extensive research” about Bruno’s alleged involvement in the effort to close the courthouse “and confirmed the allegations with multiple sources.”
Bruno, scrambling to respond with just a few days remaining before the election, filed a motion at 8:08 p.m. Halloween night seeking a temporary restraining order to block Ramsey from further circulating the Algiers Courthouse ad. Luker granted the restraining order the same night and ordered a copy hand-delivered to Ramsey’s home.
Three days later, on the morning of the election, the Ramsey campaign sent a news release to reporters touting the Judicial Campaign Oversight Committee’s dismissal of a complaint Bruno had filed against Ramsey over the advertisement. “Bruno’s complaint against Ramsey has been dismissed!” it said.
“Bruno’s attempt to use the court system to prevent the Ramsey campaign from telling the public the truth about the Algiers Courthouse has failed,” the release went on.
The Bruno campaign quickly cried foul, noting Luker’s restraining order remained in effect regardless of the action taken by the Oversight Committee. The campaign issued its own news release, with just hours remaining before the polls closed, saying the committee’s decision did not allow Ramsey to “violate the law.”
With less than two hours to go before the polls closed, the Ramsey campaign sent out a “clarification” saying its release earlier in the day “did not intend to imply that the letter issued by the Oversight Committee is related in any way to the court proceeding or the ruling issued by the court.”
The back-and-forth punctuated a campaign that had grown increasingly bitter in its final days. Bruno also obtained a restraining order that prevented Ramsey from circulating an automated phone message that Bruno said could have led voters to believe Ramsey had been endorsed by President Barack Obama.
In court filings, Kiefer, Bruno’s attorney, sought to highlight the importance restraining orders play in the final, frenzied hours of a campaign, “when television and radio advertisements to rebut false allegations cannot be secured and complete rebuttal of defamation is nearly impossible.”
Ramsey said Monday she had not seen Bruno’s motion for contempt and declined to comment. Her attorney, Edwin Shorty, did not return a call seeking comment.
Shorty has asked that Luker be recused from the case. Attorneys for both campaigns are scheduled to appear Tuesday in Civil District Court to argue that motion.
In a Nov. 3 letter to the Judicial Campaign Oversight Committee, Shorty defended the Ramsey campaign and said several people had “acknowledged” Bruno’s role in attempting to close the Algiers Courthouse, including state Sen. David Heitmeier, D-New Orleans, and Marty Broussard, the former clerk of 2nd City Court. Bruno’s website says both officials endorsed him for re-election.
Kiefer asked Luker to hold Ramsey, her campaign and Stuart, her spokesman, in contempt, fine them $1,000 each and “consider (the court’s) authority to order imprisonments” in light of a “particularly egregious” violations of a restraining order. In her bid to become a judge, Kiefer wrote in his motion for contempt, Ramsey “completely disregarded the orders of the judiciary, exhibiting a flagrant disrespect for the very authority she seeks.”
“This isn’t about retribution,” Kiefer added in an interview. “It’s just not something we should stand for as lawyers and citizens. We’re going to challenge this because we don’t want this to happen to other candidates in the future.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.