A judge Thursday rejected a bid by Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Yolanda King to have her indictment tossed out in the criminal case against her for allegedly lying about living in New Orleans when she ran for office last year.
In the meantime, battle lines were being drawn in Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s fight to eliminate King’s judicial seat before anyone else can be elected to it.
Judge Michael Kirby rejected arguments by King’s attorney, Clarence Roby Jr., that the March 20 indictment was tainted by the presence of an Orleans Parish prosecutor as the grand jury decided whether to indict and that it also was invalid because Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office never got prior approval to prosecute King from either District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro or the court.
Cannizzaro and a prosecutor with Caldwell’s office both have denied any local prosecutors were in the room when King was indicted on a felony count of filing a false public document plus a misdemeanor count of an election code violation.
Roby has argued that grand jury secrecy rules were violated and that fingerprints from Cannizzaro’s office on the case show a politically motivated prosecution aimed at retaliation for King’s surprise runoff victory last year over Doug Hammel, the former Jefferson Parish prosecutor who was endorsed by the district attorney.
Assistant Attorney General Sonceree Smith Clark, who presented the case to the grand jury, said the allegation of an improper person in the room “is ludicrous; it’s ridiculous. It’s an insult to me; it’s an insult to my office. It’s an insult to the court.”
Clark said Roby has distorted her response to a question about who was present during the grand jury proceedings, in which she acknowledged a local prosecutor had been there for a different case before the grand jury heard the allegations against King.
Clark stopped short Thursday of asking Kirby to sanction or penalize Roby for his allegation — a suggestion she made in a legal pleading earlier this week.
In any case, Kirby dismissed Roby’s argument as irrelevant, saying district attorneys are legally allowed in grand jury proceedings, regardless.
Kirby, a retired judge who was appointed by the state Supreme Court to hear the case after all 12 Criminal District Court judges recused themselves, didn’t buy the claim of political bias in King’s prosecution. He said he also was unpersuaded that a belated letter from Cannizzaro’s office, recusing itself in the case, should nullify the charges King now faces. That letter to Caldwell’s office was dated April 11, 2014, nearly three weeks after King was indicted. Clark called that delay a harmless “glitch that maybe should have been taken care of beforehand.”
Kirby said the law requiring local permission before the attorney general can jump into a case is aimed at protecting local district attorneys and, thus, is not a factor in King’s case.
Roby he plans to appeal the judge’s ruling.
The defense attorney stood by his allegations that King’s prosecution amounted to political vengeance, pointing to residency complaints against both King and Hammel that were filed last year by Cynthia Samuel, a losing candidate in the primary for the Juvenile Court seat. That complaint helped spawn the attorney general’s investigation.
“For anyone to suggest that this is not politics, you’re fooling yourself. I mean, that’s just ridiculous,” Roby said. “This whole thing is about politics, and, unfortunately, in the state of Louisiana, politics is a blood sport.”
Barring an appeal, Kirby’s decision clears the way for what is believed to be the first criminal prosecution ever in the state over a fairly common allegation against candidates for office: that they don’t live where they claim and where state law requires.
The case against King, who won the Juvenile Court seat after five failed tries for public office, appears to be well-documented.
Records including her filing for a homestead exemption for a house she bought in Slidell in 2006, along with a 2012 bankruptcy filing and other documents — as well as interviews with neighbors — suggest that King was living on Chancer Lane in Slidell, at least in the months leading up to her May 4, 2013, win. In her sworn affidavit for candidacy, King listed an address on Stillwater Drive in New Orleans.
The state constitution says judges in Louisiana “shall have been domiciled in the respective district, circuit or parish for one year preceding election.”
King maintains that she claimed the homestead exemption in St. Tammany inadvertently and has since paid back the tax gains she received before dropping the exemption last year.
King, who faces as much as five years in prison if convicted, has pleaded not guilty. She was suspended from taking the bench under a May 15 order by the Louisiana Supreme Court pending resolution of the criminal case against her.
Meanwhile, King has quietly launched a re-election website, and Roby has said she is running — if her seat makes it to the ballot.
Members of a local activist group that supports King, Justice and Beyond, have filed a petition to intervene in a case that Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office filed Monday, claiming King’s Section E seat was abolished Aug. 2, a day after a new law went into effect to reduce the number of Juvenile Court judgeships from six to four.
Landrieu championed the bill, which includes a provision that appears to have been tailored to eliminate King’s seat as a part of the downsizing.
Landrieu is asking Judge Wilson Fields in East Baton Rouge Parish to stop Secretary of State Tom Schedler and Clerk of Court Arthur Morrell from placing King’s seat on the ballot.
The motion to intervene, filed on behalf of four New Orleans residents — Deidre Martin Lewis, Mariana Elizabeth Butler, Steven Kennedy and Nakita Angelle Shavers — claims Landireu’s office is trying to deprive them of their right to choose their elected officials.
Attorney Tracie Washington, who filed the petition, described the mayor’s bid to eliminate King’s seat as an “evil” threat to voting rights.
“Sour grapes? You bet. Get over it. You lost,” Washington said outside the courthouse Thursday. “How dare you, Mitch Landrieu?”
Justice and Beyond got its start supporting Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson in a heated political struggle in 2012 over her right to become the state’s first black chief justice. King once worked as a research attorney for Johnson.
Garnesha Crawford, a spokesperson for Landrieu, issued a statement Thursday saying: “This is not a personal issue. This is about right-sizing the courts to save money and invest in juvenile services. The Louisiana Supreme Court has disqualified (King) from exercising any judicial functions. Shortly after, the Legislature passed a law abolishing that seat. The mayor is simply seeking a ruling from the court that is consistent with the law and the Legislature’s intent.”
A hearing on the mayor’s lawsuit is scheduled for Monday, two days before the three-day window opens for candidates to qualify in Orleans Parish.
Schedler argued in a legal filing Thursday that the Supreme Court, while notifying his office of King’s suspension, hasn’t deemed her seat vacant. Schedler “has a duty to include the judgeship in the Nov. 4, 2014, primary,” his attorneys argued.
Morrell said he takes his cues from Schedler’s office and that his oversight of the ballot is “purely an administrative function.”
Morrell “does not have a dog in the fight,” his attorney, Madro Bandaries, said. “Morrell does not have the power, nor has he asserted such power that would allow him to ignore state law.”
The dispute centers on the wording of a law that Landrieu pushed as a way to cut the city’s expenses. Signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal in early June, the law will abolish two of the six Juvenile Court judgeships when they become vacant.
One of them will disappear, for sure, at the end of the year with the retirement of Judge Lawrence Lagarde Jr. The law, introduced and passed at Landrieu’s behest, says another judgeship will disappear a 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 Supreme Court deemed King “disqualified from exercising any judicial function during the pendency of further proceedings” in her criminal case.
The Landrieu administration has said it has put Juvenile Court officials “on notice that funding for the abolished judicial seat is being reallocated to provide needed juvenile services.” It says the city spends about $179,000 per year for King’s seat.
The state Supreme Court may ultimately settle the issue.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.