Just two of the 12 seats on the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court bench are up for grabs in the Nov. 4 election, yet that hasn’t meant a lack of drama or political jousting this election season.
The race to fill the Section G seat left vacant by Judge Julian Parker pits longtime Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens against Byron C. Williams, a former federal and state prosecutor who most recently served as executive counsel for the president of Southern University.
The battle over the Section D seat that Judge Frank Marullo has occupied for four decades, meanwhile, has sparked fireworks, as former Orleans Parish prosecutor Graham Bosworth and local attorney Marie Williams go up against the longest-serving judge in Louisiana in a contrast of age and attitudes.
That race unleashed a legal scrum that reached the Louisiana Supreme Court last month, with Bosworth supporters challenging Marullo’s eligibility to run again at age 74.
Marullo survived the fray, only to face accusations that he offered to throw his support behind Williams for a magistrate commissioner’s post if she would exit the race.
The FBI has gotten involved in reviewing the matter, although Marullo says federal agents haven’t contacted him. In the meantime, while it remains unclear whether Marullo can legally take office if he wins, the courts have deemed him fit to run again.
Not since 1996 has Marullo faced a challenge for his seat, much less the kind of jabs the former New Orleans Athletic Club boxer is now taking on the chin. Marullo, who turns 75 on Dec. 31, insists he has unfinished business at the court.
On the campaign trail he has harkened back to his appointment in 1974 and the initiatives he says he later brought to the bench.
“It was like a naked place,” he has said. “No judicial administrator’s office. No drug court. I started drug court, intensive probation, compensation for victims.”
Marullo said he will continue to lobby in Baton Rouge to protect state funding that has dwindled in recent years. And he promises to fight against a tide of laws that he says have tied judges’ hands, like minimum sentences for certain crimes.
“There’s no garden-variety burglary. There’s no garden-variety crime,” he said. A reflexive desire to toss defendants behind bars is “not the economic answer and not the right answer. You destroy families, children. Not only Daddy goes to jail. It’s a chain reaction.”
In Bosworth’s view, the criminal courthouse suffers from institutional malaise and antiquated technology that gums up the justice system’s works.
Bosworth, 36, was first hired by former District Attorney Eddie Jordan and worked for five years as a prosecutor, mostly in the appellate division. He’s been a defense attorney since 2010, including work under contract as a Jefferson Parish public defender.
Bosworth said he aims to bring an end to the cattle-call approach to criminal cases in Orleans Parish, where judges often sort out their daily dockets on the fly.
“It doesn’t need to be that way. We can expect more. We need to expect more,” he said. “I’ve never been political. I just became incredibly frustrated with what’s going on in Criminal District Court.”
Favoring new technology to streamline cases and unify a balkanized system among the court sections, Bosworth pledges to start by launching an e-filing system in Section D if he wins.
Bosworth and Williams both say they never meant to run against Marullo, thinking he legally couldn’t qualify for the race at his age. The courts ruled otherwise.
Williams has taken a combative approach to the campaign, boasting of her experience representing death row inmates and the underserved, as well as serving as an administrative law judge. Her legal history also includes work for the Pro Bono Project and former Mayor Marc Morial’s law office.
“What I bring different to the table is I’ve worked with the community,” she said. “I’ve worked with the people. I’ve gone to Angola, eaten with inmates in Angola.”
Williams, 43, is unapologetic about her clandestine recording of a meeting last month with Marullo at Mandina’s, the Mid-City restaurant. In a tape aired by WDSU-TV, Marullo can be heard pledging to back Williams when a magistrate commissioner’s post opens up. Marullo has denied wrongdoing, saying he “all of a sudden realized there was an agenda” and made for the exit.
Williams likens her role to that of civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
“I’m for honesty,” she said. “I want the citizens of the city to be able to trust. That’s why people don’t come forward. They don’t trust the police. I don’t trust the police. I’m so tired of the politics and decades of corruption. It only takes one person.”
Williams has run for office twice before, losing a race in 2010 for a Juvenile Court seat and also missing out on a 2nd City Court judgeship in 2012.
This is Bosworth’s first run for office.
So far, the Section G race has been far quieter.
Sens, who has sat on the Municipal Court bench for 18 years, is making his first run for a seat on the bench across Gravier Street, though he said it crossed his mind a few years ago.
He said he was busy at the time taking care of health problems and rebuilding Municipal Court operations. He also acknowledged a political hit from a 2012 report by New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux that accused him of turning Municipal Court into a family-run business by maintaining 18 family members on the payroll.
It didn’t help that his younger brother, John Sens, pleaded guilty in a contractor kickback scheme from his years as purchasing director for Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office. The sheriff and the judge are longtime friends and political allies from their days in the Morial administration, where Sens served as executive assistant for intergovernmental relations. Sens said the relationship has cooled lately.
Sens also took political fire for hiring Gusman’s wife, Renee, to run a marijuana diversion program that she still oversees — a hire Sens stands by — while Gusman hired Sens’ wife, Ann, as an appraiser.
Now 58, Sens insists he played no role in his brother’s hiring at the Sheriff’s Office. He also dismisses Quatrevaux’s report as a “slanderous lie,” saying the bulk of his purported nepotism was incidental, the result of a brother marrying into a family of court employees. Sens would rather talk about being the first to return to the bench in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, commuting from New Iberia to a makeshift court at the bus station; his leadership on domestic violence issues in Municipal Court; and his shepherding of a massive influx of state misdemeanor cases that District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro moved over to Municipal Court from Criminal District Court a few years ago.
He claims a proven track record as a judge, pointing to a state-low 52-day pace for resolving cases in his courtroom. His first mission if he wins, he said, will be to get control of a Section G docket that ranks among the most bloated in the courthouse, according to the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Sens also wants to take a leading role in shifting the court away from its reliance on fines and fees levied on criminal defendants, calling the practice “borderline unconstitutional.”
Williams, who turns 60 next week, served as a judge pro tem in the courthouse in 2008 and went on to become special counsel to the state Judiciary Commission for a brief period ending in 2009. Before then he was a prosecutor for five years in Orleans Parish and, earlier, a federal prosecutor in New Orleans for a decade under former U.S. Attorneys Jim Letten and Eddie Jordan.
Citing Metropolitan Crime Commission reports on the court, Williams portrays himself as part of a “revolution of change” in the city. Also, he said, “I’m the only candidate who knows anything about Criminal Court, period.”
He said he intends to be a “servant judge,” connecting the court’s work with that of nonprofits and organizations such as the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, where he has served as a coach and football rules official.
“To be engaged in the community is not something you can turn on and turn off,” he said. “I’ve been sawing wood in the community for years. That’s what we need now for this new New Orleans we’re trying to build.”
On the campaign trail he has taken swipes at Sens, pledging to never hire family members.
“It’s the appearance of impropriety. I think that’s when people lose confidence,” he said, promising tight adherence to the canons that govern judicial ethics. “I clearly demonstrate the experience and integrity to put confidence back in the judicial system.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.