Frank Marullo, the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judge who this month survived a legal challenge to his right to run for office again at age 74 now appears to be facing an allegation that he offered his backing for a plum court job to one of his challengers in order to grease her exit from the race.
Marullo purportedly offered local lawyer Marie Williams his support for a magistrate commissioner’s post at the court if she would drop out of the race for Marullo’s Section D seat.
The conversation was surreptitiously recorded Wednesday inside Mandina’s restaurant, Marullo’s favored dining spot. A WDSU-TV reporter had staked out the Mid-City restaurant and quizzed Marullo as the judge left the restaurant.
In a snippet of the conversation aired Monday evening on the TV station, Marullo can be heard cautioning Williams that he has only one vote among the dozen judges who are charged with selecting four commissioners for the court. He then follows that by saying, “I will vote for you.”
The snippet did not make clear whether Marullo offered that support in exchange for Williams’ promise to get out of the race.
Marullo was confronted outside the restaurant by WDSU reporter Travers Mackel. In a short interview, Marullo said there was no quid pro quo and even denied that he had offered his vote to Williams.
Williams did not return calls and messages Monday about the meeting.
Marullo’s camp suggested a political setup.
The judge, who has sat on the bench for 40 years, acknowledged meeting with Williams “with the understanding that she was withdrawing from the race and endorsing my candidacy for re-election,” he said in a statement Monday.
During the conversation, he said, Williams brought up the idea of a magistrate commissioner appointment, and he responded that “I was willing to put her name into consideration by the court.”
To bolster his claim that he never offered her anything, Marullo said that at one point, Williams blurted, “You mean I get out and walk away with nothing?”
“At this point, it was clear that Ms. Williams understood I was not offering what she was seeking and I left the meeting,” Marullo said in the statement. “This was nothing but a cheap political ploy.”
Magistrate commissioners make about $75,000 a year working part time and are permitted to practice law privately.
Robert Kazik, the judicial administrator for Criminal District Court, said candidates must win a majority vote among the judges who are present. Currently all of those positions are filled.
A fuller version of the tape was slated to run on WDSU later Monday night.
Asked about the conversation, Dane Ciolino, who teaches law at Loyola University, said, “I think it raises questions.”
He referred to a section of the Louisiana Code of Judicial Conduct that says a judge or judicial candidate “shall not … in connection with cases, controversies or issues that are likely to come before the court, make pledges, promises or commitments that are inconsistent with the impartial performance of the adjudicative duties of judicial office.”
Ciolino said a “commitment” to vote for a particular person for magistrate is arguably “inconsistent with the impartial performance of the adjudicative duties” of his office. That personnel issue is one that is “likely to come before the court,” he said.
Attorney Frank DeSalvo, a Marullo supporter, mocked what he called an attempt at a political trap with media involvement.
“The whole thing was just foolishness, absolutely foolishness,” DeSalvo said. “They went mining for Marullo and got fool’s gold.”
The dust-up figures to add heat to a political contest in which so far the only drama has been the courtroom battle over whether Marullo, the longest-serving judge in Louisiana, could seek another six-year term.
Marullo has rarely faced a serious challenger since Gov. Edwin Edwards appointed him to the bench in 1974.
Only in 1996, when he beat out Camille Buras, a future colleague, by less than 2 percentage points has Marullo faced any challengers over the past quarter-century.
But this year, legal questions over his age brought out a field of four candidates, at least initially, to vie for his seat.
Marullo beat back the legal question over his right to run for office this month when the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal agreed with Civil District Judge Kern Reese that he couldn’t be denied the right to run for his seat, even if an age limit on taking office applies to him.
The Louisiana Supreme Court refused to take up the case, which was brought by three voters, including at least two supporters of former Orleans Parish prosecutor Graham Bosworth, one of Marullo’s challengers.
After the courts ruled in Marullo’s favor, two candidates who had qualified to run — former prosecutor Brigid Collins and former Magistrate Commissioner Rudy Gorrell — dropped out of the race.
That left Williams and Bosworth.
Williams, a former state administrative law judge, lost a race for a seat on the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court in 2010. She also ran for a 2nd City Court judgeship in 2012.
On Friday, Bosworth’s campaign put out a news release in which he touted his “great respect for Judge Marullo” and pledged to run “an honest and positive campaign.”
A Bosworth campaign spokeswoman, Autumn Town, said the timing of the statement was coincidental.
The appeals court majority declined to rule on whether Marullo can take the bench if he wins, leaving that legal question for a later date.
Marullo has argued that a mandatory retirement age of 70 in the state constitution doesn’t apply to him because he first took the bench under the state’s old constitution, which at the time set a mandatory retirement age for judges of 75.
Marullo turns 75 on Dec. 31. By then, voters may have approved a constitutional amendment to remove the mandatory retirement age for judges, which could render the question moot.
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