Clint Smith has a dilemma.
The New Orleans lawyer, who has served as a fill-in judge in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, wants a permanent seat on the bench, and he’s eyeing the Section E post that Judge Yolanda King claimed last year in a surprise runoff victory.
A state grand jury indicted King in March, accusing her of lying about where she lived in her sworn qualifying statement. King, 56, hasn’t taken the bench since the Louisiana Supreme Court suspended her with pay in May pending a resolution of her criminal case.
In her absence, other Juvenile Court judges have been sharing the Section E workload.
So to Smith, the seat that voters elected King to occupy seems ripe for the taking. There’s just one problem: It may no longer exist.
“That’s part of my hesitation, to be quite honest,” Smith said. “That’s sort of what I’m trying to gain some clarity on.”
Join the club. Nobody seems to have a clear answer on whether Section E was eliminated last week with the onset of a new state law to shrink Juvenile Court — nobody, that is, except Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who championed the measure.
According to mayoral spokesman Tyler Gamble, Landrieu believes King’s seat was abolished a day after the law took effect Aug. 1. That means the city will no longer pay for staffing Section E, Gamble said.
The city budgeted just over $3 million this year for Juvenile Court, a $600,000 reduction from 2013. The money goes mostly to help fund the judges’ staffs and other administrative services.
Just how much Landrieu intends to pull from the court’s budget based on his view of the law is uncertain. The Bureau of Governmental Research last year estimated that scrapping a judgeship in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court would save the city $267,500 and cut another $203,000 from the state’s judicial payroll.
Yet so far, neither the Louisiana Supreme Court nor state and local election officials have endorsed the mayor’s view, leaving King’s seat in a curious pre-election limbo. Potential candidates like Smith — and for that matter King, who has quietly launched a re-election bid — are left groping for answers.
Landrieu promoted the 2014 law, which was sponsored by Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, as a way to cut the city’s expenses for a court that has seen a hefty decline in its caseload, and to then funnel the savings to other youth services. Signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal in early June, the law will put two of the six Juvenile Court judgeships out to pasture.
One of them will disappear for sure at the end of the year. With the retirement of Judge Lawrence Lagarde Jr., his Section D seat will no longer exist.
The law, however, doesn’t specify which other section of court faces the guillotine. Instead, it says another 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.”
The “disqualification” part appeared in an 11th-hour amendment that seems to have been tailored to apply to King. It came less than two weeks after the Louisiana Supreme Court deemed her “disqualified from exercising any judicial function during the pendency of further proceedings” in her criminal case.
Now, with just a few weeks left before candidates must qualify for office, state and local officials seem flummoxed.
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office, which is prosecuting King, declined to offer an opinion on the impact of the new law, telling a reporter, “We are unable to address your question” about King’s seat.
An official with the Supreme Court likewise passed, saying the court “can’t give a legal interpretation as there’s not a case before it.”
Secretary of State Tom Schedler’s office was slightly less shy, saying it had not yet received guidance from the Supreme Court.
“But from the information we have at this time, we are still planning to open qualifying (for the race) unless we get an order with a final disqualification” of King, spokeswoman Meg Casper said.
Crowe himself said he was unsure how the law impacts King’s seat, noting that the amendment came through the House, via state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, whose office did not respond to a request for clarification on her intention.
Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell, whose office oversees local elections, said that as far as he’s concerned, “They can’t take her seat” before King’s term expires at year’s end.
Morrell referred to the state constitution, which says the “term of office, retirement benefits and compensation of a judge shall not be decreased during the term for which he is elected.”
After four failed tries at a judgeship, King won election in May 2013 to fill out the term of Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier, who moved to the criminal court bench. To abolish her seat would take an action by the Supreme Court booting King from office, Morrell said.
That view raises a tree-falls-in-the-forest conundrum: If King serves out the rest of her term from home, on paid suspension, does her seat still exist?
Just how the law is interpreted, and whether it’s constitutional, is likely to be settled in court, said Tulane law professor David Marcello, director of the Public Law Center.
“I could probably argue either side of it with some comfort,” Marcello said. “I would guess there’s a decent argument to be made either to extinguish the seat because it is perhaps vacant, or to argue that she’s not removed — she’s suspended — and therefore there’s still an occupant.”
Such legal riddles haven’t fazed Cynthia Samuel, a family law attorney who lost in the primary for the seat last year, then continued to raise questions about King’s residency before the runoff in which King beat Doug Hammel. Samuel’s complaints to District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office helped prod the investigation that has landed King in hot water with Caldwell’s office.
Samuel said she’s running for King’s seat, confident she’ll be able to take the bench if she wins.
Her interpretation: The Supreme Court disqualified King before the law took effect, so it doesn’t count.
Still, Samuel admits she’s not positive on that, and anyway, her hopes would sour quickly if King gets convicted before election day. No trial date has been set in the case, in which King faces a felony count of filing false public records and a misdemeanor election code violation. She has claimed she is the victim of a malicious, politically motivated prosecution seeking payback for her election victory over Cannizzaro’s choice, former Jefferson Parish prosecutor Hammel.
“I recognize it’s a risk. I’m going to handle the risk in the best way I can, which is probably to minimize my financial investment,” Samuel said.
Retired Criminal District Court Judge Jerome Winsberg said that risk appears to be large for candidates thinking of unseating King. “Somebody could run and not be able to serve,” he said.
In the meantime, the judges at Juvenile Court are getting ready to move late this year to the city’s new Juvenile Justice Center, part of a $45 million complex that also houses the new Youth Study Center, which opened in March.
In a pre-emptive strike by Landrieu’s administration, the city built the center to house just four courtrooms, not six.
If King’s seat goes away, the bodies will fit. If not, the judges may be waiting for the music to stop.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.