Election-year battles are typically fought at political forums, over the airwaves, on canvassed streets and between clustered yard signs shouting last names across intersections.
In this sense, the weeks leading up to Saturday’s elections in Jefferson Parish have been no different from in years past.
But it’s been impossible not to notice the prevalence of another theater in the wars between candidates in Jefferson Parish this fall: the courthouse.
Key aspects of the race for the parish presidency, the only contested at-large Parish Council seat and two legislative races have all been litigated before judges of the 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna.
Disqualification attempts, requests for injunctions against inflammatory ads, not to mention Derrick Shepherd’s repeated — and thus far unsuccessful — efforts to persuade various state judges to strike down the constitutional provision preventing him from running for the Legislature have combined to ensure that if there’s been a lot of newspaper ink spilled about a race, there’s a good chance the story was coming from the courthouse at 200 Derbigny St.
“It does seem like they’re going to the courts more often, particularly on these political ads,” said Ed Chervenak, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans.
“It’s something that’s becoming more and more a part of local politics,” agreed Scott Sternberg, a lawyer who has defended candidates from challenges to their right to run. “We’ve seen more suits (this year) than I can remember seeing.”
The season started with a spate of disqualification attempts right after qualifying in early September.
Jefferson Parish Councilman Ben Zahn managed to get Scarlett Alaniz, his sole opponent in the District 4 race, disqualified because she had overdue fines from a previous race at the time she signed her qualifying papers, in which she swore that she had paid any such fines.
Meanwhile, two of the three candidates for the Parish Council’s only contested at-large seat spent much of the week after qualifying in court. Louis Congemi successfully defended himself against the claim that his comments to a reporter in April about his plans to run for an undetermined council seat had constituted a formal announcement, triggering campaign finance disclosures.
Incumbent Chris Roberts, meanwhile, had three suits filed against him, though two never saw the inside of a courtroom. In the one that did, Roberts successfully beat back allegations that he hadn’t filed several past state income-tax returns when he qualified. He testified that they had been put in the mail shortly before he signed the paperwork.
Disqualification lawsuits are fairly standard practice. As Sternberg noted, “The rules are the rules, and if you can kick a candidate off (the ballot), you’re going to try and do it.”
But the courtroom skirmishing between the Congemi and Roberts camps has been more elaborate than catching a candidate on an overlooked fine or the distinction between a domicile and a residence, and it set the stage for what has become a bitter contest over campaign ads.
It started Oct. 6, when Roberts sued Congemi over a pair of TV ads that said Roberts hadn’t paid his taxes. Roberts called the allegations “malicious and not factual.”
The two sides tried to hammer out a deal in the hallway outside Judge Scott Schlegel’s courtroom. Roberts’ attorneys made an offer but balked at the counteroffer that came back. So Schlegel took the bench and immediately called both sides into his chambers; after an hour, a consent judgment was signed in which both sides said they would stop airing their ads attacking the other about taxes.
Each candidate claimed victory, but within days, Roberts said his attorneys were drawing up a suit against Congemi for violating the settlement’s provision that banned him from airing the same claims as in the original ads. As of Friday, that suit had not been filed, but Roberts said it remains in the works.
Congemi has said the bottom line is that Roberts didn’t file his taxes until the last minute, that he was fined by the state Ethics Board and that his reasons amount to the-dog-ate-my-homework-style excuses. Roberts counters that Congemi chose to make the tax returns a central campaign issue but doesn’t seem to be able to bring them up without distorting the facts.
“That does seem to be the nastiest campaign out there,” Chervenak said.
It’s not the only one in which campaign allegations are being argued in a courtroom, however.
State Sen. Conrad Appel has sued his challenger for the District 9 Senate seat, John Labruzzo, over ads charging that Appel “rammed” the Common Core public school standards down Louisiana residents’ throats and bought shares of companies that he knew would get contracts to implement the standards. Appel called the allegations totally false.
The next day, Parish Councilman Elton Lagasse sued Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni, his chief rival in the parish president’s race, over campaign ads that said Lagasse, while a top official of the parish school system, tried to raise taxes and “rolled taxes forward” to bring in more money without voter approval. Yenni said his ads came in response to mailers and TV commercials that called Yenni “the Tax Man” and said he raised sewer fees and tried to raise property taxes in Kenner.
Like the Roberts-Congemi suit, those claims ended with all sides agreeing to pull the ads in their original forms and declaring victory. In the Senate race, Labruzzo agreed to soften the language of his allegations, some of which were based on claims from a political blog.
Sternberg, whose firm has not handled any of the disputes that wound up in court this year, said he thinks the trend toward more litigation is rooted in a couple of factors. First, there’s more information generally available on the Internet to circulate about opponents and use for rebuttals than there was years ago. Also, he said, the concept of having supported a tax increase is more generally accepted as a particularly poisonous allegation.
“The things that they’re throwing around are really hot-button issues,” he said.
Chervenak said candidates need to be careful about where they get their information. Political blogs “may not be the best sources for the most accurate information, and I think that’s getting them in trouble,” he said.
Sternberg, a media and First Amendment lawyer who has represented The Advocate in the past, said candidates who sue their opponents could feel they benefit from the implication that the accusations in the political ads against them are so scurrilous they had no choice but to sue.
And when the dust settles, as it has thus far, with consent judgments and settlements in which everyone promises to stand down, “it ends up in a tie, an ‘I’ll drop my ad if you drop your ad’ type of situation,” Chervenak said.
Only time will tell whether this year marks the beginning of a political trend that will make the courtroom a central fixture in campaigns for years to come, or whether the litigiousness of the 2015 political season is merely an anomaly.
“It does strike me as odd that they’re relying more and more on the courts to settle these things, rather than the court of public opinion, which is typically the way these things are done,” Chervenak said. “You put your message out there and let the people decide.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.