Mayor Mitch Landrieu lost the first court battle Monday in his attempt to abolish the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court seat held by embattled Judge Yolanda King, who has been temporarily relieved of her judicial duties while she fights criminal charges alleging she violated the election code.
Judge Wilson Fields, who sits on the Baton Rouge-based 19th Judicial District Court, rejected Landrieu’s argument that King’s absence from the bench makes her position eligible for elimination under a new state law.
The city filed a lawsuit last week demanding that Secretary of State Tom Schedler and Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell remove King’s Section E seat from this fall’s ballot. Attorneys for the city also sought an injunction to prevent interested candidates from qualifying for the Nov. 4 election.
The ruling, which a city attorney said would be immediately appealed to the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, preserves King’s seat for the time being and opens the way for qualifying to begin Wednesday.
King has pleaded not guilty to a felony charge of filing a false public record and a misdemeanor election code violation for allegedly lying about living in New Orleans when she filed her sworn candidacy statement last year.
A law that went into effect Aug. 1, championed by Landrieu and passed by the Legislature this year, sets conditions for removing two judgeships from Juvenile Court once there are openings on the bench. The Bureau of Governmental Research, among others, has recommended shrinking that court, saying it has more judges than necessary.
The law mandates that a 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 response to the pending criminal charges, the Supreme Court in May deemed that King was “disqualified from exercising any judicial function during the pendency of further proceedings.”
Lawyers representing the Landrieu administration argued that under the new law, the Supreme Court’s action effectively abolishes King’s seat. But the attorneys for the defendants, who included Schedler and Morrell, argued that an interim disqualification could not be construed as a “vacancy.”
James Williams, the attorney representing King, who had intervened in the legal dispute, noted that King hasn’t been convicted and could be reinstated at any point. King also is still being paid, and the Supreme Court appointed an ad hoc judge to take her place, which Williams said was a sign the Supreme Court’s intent was not to abolish the seat.
“The very reason it says ‘with pay’ is because you can’t deprive someone of their property rights without due process of law,” Williams said. He said the Supreme Court is the only body with the authority to declare judicial vacancies, and it has not done so with regard to King’s seat.
City attorneys retorted that the Supreme Court would declare a vacancy only if there was an election to be held, arguing that King’s removal automatically means there shouldn’t be an election.
“None of these triggers occurred, because there is no election to occur,” said Suchitra Satpathi, an attorney representing the city.
In qualifying for office last year, King signed an affidavit saying she lived in Orleans Parish. Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office claims she actually lived in St. Tammany Parish.
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.