GONZALES — The three-parish 23rd Judicial District is losing 42 years of combined experience on the bench come Jan. 1 when Judge Ralph Tureau retires and Judge Guy Holdridge heads to the Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge.
Fixtures on the court, Tureau and Holdridge remained in office unopposed after initial election contests brought them to the judiciary nearly two decades ago or more. That’s not uncommon in the district court for Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes. Indeed, this year, three incumbent judges — those in divisions B, D and E — were re-elected without opposition to six-year terms.
“Once a judge gets in, you don’t vote for another judge for a long time. This is the first time you get to vote on two judgeships … for a long time,” said Ascension Parish Registrar of Voters Robert Poché.
Four Ascension Parish lawyers are vying for the two open seats.
O’Neil Parenton Jr., 59, of Prairieville, no party, is running against Jason M. Verdigets, 37, of Dutchtown, a Republican, for the Division A seat Tureau is vacating.
Bruce E. Unangst II, 43, a Republican, of Prairieville, is running against Katherine Tess Percy Stromberg, 42, a Republican, of Prairieville, for the Division C seat Holdridge is leaving.
Early voting ends Tuesday.
The candidates are competing in an at-large voting district resembling a doughnut, which includes a piece of Ascension that has 2.5 times the registered voters over the other two parishes and where Democrat voter registration narrowly leads Republican registration. The doughnut “hole” is reserved for the district’s minority-majority Division E seat held by Chief Judge Alvin Turner Jr.
Some observers see Verdigets and Unangst, who have the backing of the Ascension Parish Republican Party Executive Committee, making a strong play in more conservative northern Ascension, while Stromberg and Parenton, who have backing from area officials and also expect support in Ascension Parish, run strong in St. James and Assumption parishes, where Democratic registration is greater and family and political ties carry more weight.
The Verdigets and Parenton election for the Division A seat pits two 23rd Judicial District assistant district attorneys against each other. District Attorney Ricky Babin has not made an endorsement.
In the Division C race, Stromberg, the daughter of longtime Gonzales City Attorney Ryland Percy, is challenging Unangst, a criminal defense attorney from a New Orleans-area political family who has lived in Ascension Parish for more than a decade.
Limited by judicial canons from saying how they might rule on specific cases or offering harsh campaign rhetoric, the candidates have emphasized their qualifications and commitment to fairness and impartiality, though they have tried also to highlight differences.
Parenton vs. Verdigets
Parenton, 59, touts his overall breadth of civil and criminal legal work and experience as an advantage over Verdigets, who is 22 years his junior.
“I have got 29 years of courtroom experience, all of it based generally in Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes. I’ve tried multiple civil trials as a plaintiff and a defendant, and I think I have got credit for 17 or 18 jury trials on the criminal side,” Parenton said.
In a questionnaire for The Advocate, Parenton, who started his career in 1985 in the firm of then-District Attorney Donald T. Carmouche, said he has been the lead or co-counsel for 100 bench trials.
Verdigets, who has served as lead prosecutor on 13 judge and jury trials and has won 450 convictions, is seeking to turn his relative youth and mix of experience to an advantage.
Parenton, who has represented Ascension Parish government since 2011 and formerly represented the parish Planning and Zoning Commission, is touting his support from Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez.
This history can be a double-edged sword as Martinez has detractors, and as legal adviser, Parenton also has had to make calls that have angered some.
Verdigets, who was recognized in 2012 by the Louisiana Narcotics Officers Association as Drug Prosecutor of the Year and claims a varied civil practice, said he is the right fit for the seat and is “the new blood” people are seeking.
“We’re just going keep knocking on doors, going in the neighborhoods and hitting some events and trying to get out there and keep repeating our message about the future of the parish. I think I am the one for the future. That is really what it’s about,” said Verdigets, who has litigated cases in Louisiana state and federal courts and in federal courts in 10 other states.
Stromberg vs. Unangst
In the Division C race, Stromberg has backing from Wiley, Assumption Parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack, St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin Jr., Gonzales Police Chief Sherman Jackson and Babin. Stromberg, who is married to a Gonzales police officer, has touted her civil experience representing local government, her time as a state ethics investigator and her two years as 23rd Judicial District administrator and hearing officer. She says she is trusted by law enforcement.
“I have the legal experience necessary to be a good judge, and I want to preserve what is great about our three parishes and protect them for the future of our families,” she said in a response to The Advocate’s questionnaire.
Unangst, who claims 16 years of courtroom experience, is the son of former St. Tammany Parish President Bruce Unangst and the brother of former Metairie state Sen. Julie Quinn but entered the race less well-known than his opponent.
Unangst, who pronounces his last name “U-nangst,” has played off his uncommon last name in a commercial that asks “What’s a Unangst?” as a way to introduce himself and burnish his conservative credentials.
“People call me ‘tough’ … ‘experienced’ … ‘conservative.’ Some people call me ‘Bruce’ when they can’t say my last name,” Unangst says in the ad.
Stromberg has questioned that toughness, pointing out he defended Baton Rouge serial killer Derrick Todd Lee in the early 2000s.
“I find it ironic that he will stand up in commercials or in front of the Republican Party and say ‘I am tough on crime’ when his main practice is criminal defense,” Stromberg said.
Unangst said he was appointed by the court as third chair on Lee’s defense team while working as a section chief for the 19th Judicial District Public Defender’s Office. He said the case led to his resignation from the job in 2005 only months after the trial ended.
“I believe everyone has a right to counsel. I can tell you that experience was the most difficult for me personally and professionally. It came at a great cost to me, but I did what I was called to do,” Unangst said.
Unangst, in addition to a private civil practice, remains in criminal defense through the Baton Rouge Capital Conflict Office and says defense experience has prepared him to be a trial judge.
In March 1999, Baton Rouge police arrested Unangst, then 27, on charges of driving while intoxicated, reckless driving and following too closely after a stop at the Essen Lane/I-12 interchange, a police report says.
Unangst refused to take a field sobriety or a breath-alcohol test. Prosecutors submitted the DWI and following too closely charges without evidence. They were dropped. Unangst pleaded guilty to reckless driving in January 2000 and received fines, court costs and one year of unsupervised probation. In April 2009, the conviction was set aside.
The arrest led Unangst to stop drinking alcohol, give his life to the Lord and become a married father who serves his community through his church, he said.
“That event was a catalyst for great change in my life, and combined with my 16 years of courtroom experience, allows me to understand the difference between someone who makes a mistake and someone we need to take off of the streets,” Unangst said in a written statement.
Unangst has questioned Stromberg’s inexperience with criminal jury trials. Though she has tried civil and criminal bench trials and civil jury trials, she has never tried a criminal case in front of a jury, she said, as defense clients had charges dismissed or took lesser pleas. She said most of the docket would be civil anyway, but she would be prepared for future criminal jury trials.
Unangst also has indirectly questioned how independent Stromberg could be with her political support, noting he is “not beholden to any politicos” and is free to decide based on the law.
Stromberg countered that while her backers are her friends, they would not ask her for a favor and she wouldn’t provide a favor if asked.
“I’m nobody’s girl,” Stromberg said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.