Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office filed a lawsuit Monday to stop the state from placing indicted Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Yolanda King’s seat on the ballot this fall, arguing that a new state law aimed at shrinking Juvenile Court did away with the judgeship on Aug. 2, a day after the law took effect.
Meanwhile, King’s attorney claimed that Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office had no business prosecuting her without court approval and therefore the indictment against her for allegedly lying about where she lived when she ran for office last year should be dismissed.
Landrieu championed the Juvenile Court reduction measure as a way to cut the city’s expenses for a court that has seen a sizable decline in its caseload. Signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal in early June, the law eliminates two of the six Juvenile Court judgeships when they become vacant.
One of them will disappear at the end of the year with the retirement of Judge Lawrence Lagarde Jr. The law doesn’t specify which other section of court faces the same fate. Instead, it says another judgeship will dissolve one day after “becoming vacant by (a judge’s) death, resignation, retirement, disqualification from exercising any judicial function pursuant to order of the Louisiana Supreme Court, or removal during the term of office.”
In May, the Louisiana Supreme Court deemed King “disqualified from exercising any judicial function during the pendency of further proceedings” in her criminal case.
To Landrieu, that means her seat is gone.
“Accordingly, the City of New Orleans has put the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court on notice that funding for the abolished judicial seat is being reallocated to provide needed juvenile services in the city,” City Attorney Sharonda Williams wrote in the seven-page pleading, which names Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler and Arthur Morrell, the Orleans Parish clerk of Criminal District Court. Their two offices oversee elections in Orleans Parish.
The lawsuit was filed in the 19th Judicial District, in East Baton Rouge Parish. It was assigned to Judge Wilson Fields. It came nine days before the start of a three-day candidate qualifying period.
“We are aware of the lawsuit and have no comment on it at this time,” said Madro Bandaries, an attorney for Morrell. “We have not been officially served.”
The legal sticking point, for Morrell, is a clause in the state constitution that says the “term of office, retirement benefits and compensation of a judge shall not be decreased during the term for which he is elected.” According to Morrell, that means King’s seat must remain unless she’s booted outright.
A spokeswoman for Schedler’s office declined to comment for the same reason. Last week, spokeswoman Meg Casper said the office was seeking guidance from the Louisiana Supreme Court on the status of King’s seat, “but from the information we have at this time, we are still planning to open qualifying (for the race) unless we get an order with a final disqualification.”
Meanwhile, King’s attorney, Clarence Roby Jr., filed a five-page legal memo Monday claiming that Caldwell’s office overstepped its bounds in prosecuting King. It noted that Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office did not formally bow out of the case until after King’s indictment on March 20.
The new filing followed Roby’s contentious allegations last week of prosecutorial misconduct. Roby claimed that King’s prosecution was political revenge by Cannizzaro for her surprising runoff victory last year to fill out the term of departed Juvenile Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier. Cannizzaro had endorsed former Jefferson Parish prosecutor Doug Hammel for the seat.
In a motion to quash the indictment, Roby accused Cannizzaro’s office of wielding an invisible hand in the case, even planting a prosecutor in the room as a state grand jury handed up its indictment against King.
Cannizzaro and Caldwell’s office denied Roby’s accusations. In a letter to the editor of The New Orleans Advocate, Cannizzaro accused Roby of a dishonest ploy to foment “a political circus” around the case.
Residency challenges against political candidates are common and occasionally result in disqualifications, but King’s criminal case appears to be a first in Louisiana.
She has pleaded not guilty to one felony and one misdemeanor count for claiming a New Orleans address at 5336 Stillwater Drive in a sworn candidate qualifying statement in February 2013. State prosecutors say she actually lived at a house she bought in 2006 on Chancer Lane in Slidell, where she filed later the same year for a homestead exemption — one she continued to enjoy through 2012. By law, a homestead exemption is available only for someone’s principal residence.
To run for office, candidates must sign a sworn statement that attests to their address and that they are a registered voter in the parish.
King has said the homestead exemption on the Slidell property was an inadvertent mistake and that she has dropped it and paid back the tax reductions it gave her. Still, several public documents, including King’s 2012 bankruptcy filing — along with neighbors’ statements — point to her living in the Slidell house in the months leading up to her election.
On May 15, the Louisiana Supreme Court barred King from sitting on the bench while the criminal case against her is pending. She still is drawing her salary.
All 12 judges at Criminal District Court have recused themselves from hearing the case against King, and the Louisiana Supreme Court appointed retired Judge Michael Kirby to preside over the case. No trial date has been set.
King, 56, faces up to five years in prison if convicted of the felony charge against her.
A spokeswoman for Caldwell’s office, Laura Gerdes, said state prosecutors would respond to the latest accusations in writing before a hearing scheduled for Thursday.
Cannizzaro’s spokesman, Christopher Bowman, has said that office recused itself in the case early on, shortly after one of King’s opponents, Cynthia Samuel, filed a complaint against both King and Hammel, alleging neither met the residency requirement. According to Bowman, the office chose to step aside in large part because Cannizzaro had endorsed Hammel.
Roby, however, cited a formal recusal letter dated April 11 of this year, three weeks after King was indicted.
At issue may be whether Caldwell’s office needed Cannizzaro’s office to formally step aside before it could get involved in the case.
Under state law, the attorney general “has authority to institute and prosecute, or to intervene in any proceeding, as he may deem necessary for the assertion or protection of the rights and interests of the state.”
However, Roby cited a clause in the Louisiana Constitution that grants the attorney general the authority “for cause, when authorized by the court which would have original jurisdiction and subject to judicial review, (a) to institute, prosecute or intervene in any criminal action or proceeding, or (b) to supersede any attorney representing the state in any civil or criminal action.”
Roby argues that Caldwell’s office abused its power by failing to get the local court’s authorization to intervene.
King, 56, beat Hammel in a May 2013 runoff. Samuel, who had lost in the primary, proceeded to launch a more pointed attack on King’s claim of New Orleans residency.
A private investigator, John Carroll, got involved, staking out King’s house in Slidell and forwarding to Caldwell’s office his findings that she was living there.
Carroll won’t say who hired him, and Samuel has declined to say whether she did. But a state campaign expense filing shows that Samuel’s campaign paid Carroll $300 for “professional services” on March 6, 2013.
The state constitution says judges in Louisiana “shall have been domiciled in the respective district, circuit or parish for one year preceding election.” Orleans Parish Juvenile Court judges “shall have resided in the Parish of Orleans for at least two years immediately preceding their election.”
King recently launched a re-election website, and Roby has said there’s no doubt she’s in the race.
A witness roster in her criminal case lists King’s address as 1638 Chancer Lane in Slidell.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.