The stakes could hardly be higher for Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman this week as he squares off with the U.S. Justice Department in a legal battle that is expected to determine whether he will remain in control of the city’s jail or be supplanted by an outside administrator.
But on the eve of the most important court proceeding of his tenure, the embattled sheriff has received a groundswell of support from constituents, local clergy and fellow lawmen, including the influential Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, all of whom have urged the government to abandon its bid to place the Orleans Justice Center in federal receivership.
More than 3,000 people signed a petition telling U.S. District Judge Lance Africk that appointing a so-called receiver to manage day-to-day operations at the jail “would be usurping the will of the voters,” said Amy Barrios, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.
U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, echoed those sentiments in a sharply worded letter to the Justice Department, warning that receivership “could unintentionally roll back some of the hard-fought civil rights and voting rights gains that have been achieved in Orleans Parish.”
The Justice Department’s request, Richmond added, “would ask New Orleanians to foot the bill for their own de facto disenfranchisement.”
Gusman won two-thirds of the vote in 2014 when he was elected to a third four-year term.
“When his term is over, then the populace can speak again if they choose,” the Rev. Dwight Webster, pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church, said Tuesday. “He was duly elected in a properly conducted election.”
“The people are speaking,” he added. “The faith-based community is speaking.”
The sheriff has mounted an aggressive public relations campaign intended to sway Africk before the first witness takes the stand Wednesday in U.S. District Court.
Gusman’s backers have avoided mentioning the violence and chronic understaffing at the lockup that recently prompted the transfer of hundreds of New Orleans inmates to jails in northeastern Louisiana. Instead, they have portrayed the Justice Department’s request as an overreach on the part of the government.
“If we take the jail away from him now, this would supersede the authority that the voters of New Orleans have placed within his hands by electing and re-electing him to carry out the task of this office,” the Rev. C.S. Gordon, of New Zion Baptist Church, said at a news conference a group of black ministers held Tuesday outside the new jail. “Rome was not built in a day, and this process cannot be completed in a day or even a few months. It is our belief that Sheriff Gusman is doing a great job, and we say let the progress continue.”
The Urban League of Greater New Orleans asked the Justice Department last week to meet with the sheriff to hash out a resolution — an offer, also extended by Gusman himself, that the feds rebuffed. The organization known as Justice & Beyond also has spoken out in support of Gusman.
And on Tuesday, the executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, Michael Ranatza, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, asking her to back away from the call for a receivership, saying it “carries with it a terrible precedent for the cancellation of free elections in Louisiana.”
New Orleanians had “full knowledge” of the litigation surrounding the jail when they “voted overwhelmingly to return Sheriff Gusman to the office of sheriff,” he wrote, noting, as Sheriff’s Office attorneys have in court filings, that Gusman became the city’s first black sheriff when he took office in 2004.
“Such action to cancel the vote of a free democratic election is not normally done in the United States of America,” Ranatza added, stressing that he wrote on behalf of all of the state’s sheriffs.
Richmond, the congressman, wrote that the Justice Department has been “unresponsive and unwilling to facilitate” a conversation about the call for a receivership. “I have personally toured the newly opened Orleans Justice Center,” he wrote in a letter dated Tuesday. “It was an impressive, clean and modern facility. The medical clinic rivaled most clinics in our community, and the mental health services greatly exceeded those being offered in Orleans Parish outside of the jail.”
The Justice Department has been unmoved by Gusman’s popularity. Its attorneys, joined by the MacArthur Justice Center, the civil rights law firm representing the city’s inmates, maintain that Gusman has impeded progress at the jail, pointing to his failure to implement sweeping reforms Africk ordered in 2013.
The sheriff has blamed Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration for the slow pace of change, saying the city has not adequately funded the Sheriff’s Office and has refused to approve pay raises for deputies.
Wednesday, the government will begin presenting its case that conditions at the Orleans Justice Center are violating inmates’ constitutional rights. The Justice Department is expected to rely heavily upon the findings of Susan McCampbell, a corrections expert who has monitored the status of the mandated jail reforms and toured the jail on a regular basis.
The hearing is expected to last at least two days and to feature testimony from Gusman himself. The parties will be given an opportunity to file briefs following the evidentiary hearing, though it is unclear from the court record when Africk might rule.
The pastors’ news conference Tuesday highlighted the polarization surrounding the jail. Just two months ago, a different group of mostly black clergy gathered on the other side of the Orleans Justice Center and demanded the sheriff’s resignation, citing a “culture of violence and neglect” at the lockup that has persisted despite three years of federal supervision.
“We need community oversight so we can know what’s really happening inside,” Beverly Greer, a former inmate who is a member of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, said Tuesday. “Sheriff Gusman abandoned us during (Hurricane) Katrina, and he’s still abandoning us today.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.