GONZALES — Concerned that Ascension Parish wasn’t getting needed representation on the critical 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, a Prairieville-based state legislator in 2008 pushed through a change to the election maps to give lawyers from the fast-growing area a better shot at making it to the appellate bench.
But when the first opportunity came for lawyers to run for the open, newly created seat, no scramble materialized. Instead, 23rd Judicial District Judge Guy Holdridge, of Gonzales, took the judgeship automatically when he was the only one to qualify two weeks ago.
He wasn’t the only judge who was elected to an open seat on the 1st Circuit after doing nothing more than paying a qualifying fee. Judge Wayne Ray Chutz, of the neighboring 21st Judicial District in the Florida parishes, won a different seat after drawing no opposition by the close of qualifying on Aug. 22.
The two Republican judges, who each have spent more than two decades on the district bench, will take their places in January on the 1st Circuit. Appellate judge terms run for 10 years and come with $152,000 annual salaries.
“Some (judicial election) cycles you’ll have competitive races. Others you won’t. This was one of those cycles,” said Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which over the years has become increasingly involved in electing judges.
The Baton Rouge-based 1st Circuit is southeast Louisiana’s most sprawling appellate court, with jurisdiction to hear cases from 16 parishes that range from Terrebonne Parish to Washington Parish. The twelve judges are elected from three regional districts that divvy up the parishes. First Circuit judges hear a good share of the most publicized cases in the state, as the court’s jurisdiction handles most of the appeals of lawsuits involving state government.
In recent years, some Ascension lawyers complained that the eight-parish 1st District, which runs from the Gulf of Mexico to suburban Baton Rogue, was tilted in favor of the coastal parishes. In 2008, state Rep. Eddie Lambert, R-Prairieville, took action, pushing through House Bill 854 to split the 1st election district in the 1st Circuit to account for shifting populations.
Lambert had complained that Lafourche, Terrebonne and St. Mary parishes, with their combined populations, had long dominated the four at-large seats in the 1st District to the exclusion of other parishes on the district’s northern end, including fast-growing Ascension Parish.
“It’s about fairness. You shouldn’t have certain groups controlling everything,” Lambert said in a recent interview.
He said his initial version of the bill, which would have created two at-large seats from the northern end of the district and two from the southern end, prompted what he called a “blood bath” as appellate judges in the district came to Baton Rouge to complain.
The bill made it out of the House, but in the Senate a compromise had to be brokered. Then-state Sen. Reggie Dupre, D-Houma, the four affected appellate judges and others met in the office of the then-new Senate President Joel Chaisson II, D-Destrehan.
Dupre said he told the judges that if they didn’t take the compromise, population trends in suburban Baton Rouge could eventually overwhelm the voting strength of Terrebonne and Lafourche.
The final bill ended up creating just two district seats, while the other two would remain at large. The district seats meant one judge would be elected from Lafourche, Terrebonne and St. Mary parishes, while another would be elected from Ascension, Assumption, West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes.
“This is an example of how democracy works. You come up with common ground and then you get two opposing sides to work together,” said Dupre, now executive director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District. “I think for the long-term future, this will be good for a longtime coming.”
The change not only protected one seat on the southern end of the 1st District — which does not come to the ballot under the changes until 2018 — but potentially gave the right Ascension Parish lawyer a strong base from which to seek office on the 1st Circuit. Ascension and Assumption parishes have 87,163 registered voters, Aug. 1 registration figures show. The other three parishes in the new 1st District, 1 Section, Division C, have 53,361 voters.
What’s odd about Holdridge taking the open seat is that there certainly has been interest from other suburban Baton Rouge-area district judges in the past to run for the appellate court. Judge William C. Dupont, an 18th Judicial District judge from Plaquemine and a Democrat, led the primary field in 2012 and made it until a December runoff against Republican Mitch Theriot, of Raceland. Dupont ultimately lost.
Though Holdridge never formally announced he was running, that he was eyeing the seat was an “open secret” in the legal community as he reached out to lawyers to line up support, lawyers said.
“Guy just played his politics smart,” said Tony Clayton, 18th Judicial District chief felony prosecutor in West Baton Rouge Parish and a trial lawyer in private practice in Port Allen.
Holdridge, who serves on the council of the Louisiana State Law Institute, an arm of the Legislature that makes recommendations about changes to state law, has a reputation as a pragmatic jurist with a sharp wit and a taste for verbal back-and-forth with attorneys in his courtroom.
“He’s smart, and he’s decisive and he’ll make an outstanding appellate court judge,” said R. Ryland Percy III, Gonzales’ city attorney who knows Holdridge personally and has been in his courtroom for many years.
Lambert said he didn’t push the legislation with a specific judge in mind. He noted that sometimes judgeships are filled without opposition, though he added he would have preferred a good election contest.
“I kind of enjoy a political race to be honest with you. It’s the closest thing to playing football for old guys,” he said.
Holdridge, Chutz and Dupont did not return messages this past week for comment, though Holdridge did speak about winning the seat on Aug. 22.
“I’m very humbled and very appreciative, hopefully, to find out that some of the people think I did a good job as a trial court judge,” he said then.
Holdridge will take over for retiring Circuit Judge Randolph “Randy” Parro, a Democrat from Thibodaux who has been on the appellate court since 1993.
Chutz, a St. Helena Parish native, will replace retiring Circuit Judge James “Jimmy” Kuhn, a Republican and Ponchatoula native who has held his seat since 1994.
Kuhn’s and Parro’s terms end Dec. 31.
Two incumbent 1st Circuit judges, Jewel “Duke” Welch and Ernest “Ernie” Drake Jr., also were re-elected without opposition Aug. 22 when no one qualified to run against them. Both are Republicans.
Advocate reporter Heidi R. Kinchen contributed to this story.
Editor’s note: This story was changed Sept. 5, 2014, to correctly state that Judge Guy Holdridge serves on the 23rd Judicial District Court, not the 18th Judicial District Court.