After a narrow loss in the race for the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal bench in March, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Tiffany Chase is vying for another open spot there in the Oct. 14 election.
Chase faces opposition from Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier, who argues that her time spent amid the hurly-burly at "Tulane and Broad" would bring a perspective now lacking at the appeals court, most of whose judges came from the world of civil law.
Both candidates are New Orleans natives and Democrats. They are seeking to complete the unexpired term of Paul Bonin, who switched from the appeals court to the criminal court earlier this year.
Whoever wins will keep Bonin’s old seat through 2022. Only Orleans Parish voters can participate in this election, although the court hears writs and appeals from district courts in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes as well. Those parishes elect members to the court in separate elections.
Both women report having more than $150,000 in campaign cash on hand, with many donations coming from fellow attorneys. Both also have loaned themselves more than $100,000.
Fewer than 700 votes separated Chase from Paula Brown, who edged her out in the March appeals court race. Chase said her pitch to voters now remains the same as it was then. “I am who I am,” she said. “I stand on my qualifications, on my background.”
Her background includes seven years as a clerk at the state Supreme Court and 10 years as a judge at Civil District Court. She said she drafted more than 50 opinions for judges at the high court, a number of them in criminal cases.
The core of her platform, however, is her time spent judging civil cases, which make up most of the appeals court's workload. Data from the Supreme Court show that the 4th Circuit heard 271 appeals of civil cases in 2016 as opposed to 63 criminal appeals.
Chase said one of her highest priorities at Civil District Court has been improving access to justice for ordinary people. She helped found the state’s first judicial help desk and said she would seek to set up a help desk at the appeals court as well.
And the appeals judges she admires most, she said, are those who “write in plain English so that everyone can understand, instead of all that legalese.”
Bonin spoke during his most recent election about the obstacles indigent criminal defendants face in receiving a fair hearing. Chase declined to make any broad statements about whether the criminal justice system is tilted too far one way or the other, but she said she does share concerns about equal access to the courts.
“Do I see that there’s a disproportionate number of people are not afforded the opportunity to have representation? Absolutely. And competent representation? Absolutely,” she said.
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Chase was the target of criticism two years ago for her decision to appoint her onetime campaign chairman, former Civil Sheriff Paul Valteau, to the lucrative position of special master overseeing the dispersal of $14 million awarded in a lawsuit over homes built on a toxic waste dump. A campaign consultant said on her behalf that Valteau’s appointment was endorsed by all sides in the case.
Chase is endorsed by the Alliance for Good Government, the Regular Democratic Organization and the United Teachers of New Orleans. She also received 86 percent support from area attorneys in a poll conducted by the New Orleans Bar Association.
Like Chase, Flemings-Davillier received undergraduate and law degrees from Loyola University. She worked in civil practice at the Phelps Dunbar firm for 16 years before she was elected as a Juvenile Court judge in 2010. She said she was inspired to run by her time as a pro bono lawyer for children caught up in the juvenile system.
In 2013, she won a race for the Criminal District Court bench.
“I get to balance — use my legal experience from Phelps, from Juvenile Court and from what I’ve accumulated in Criminal Court. … And then on the other side, I get to use my sociology degree every day to try and make a difference in someone’s life,” she said.
Flemings-Davillier noted that aside from full-blown appeals, the 4th Circuit also hears numerous writs, many involving high-stakes pre-trial motions in criminal cases. The court handled 370 criminal writs in 2016 as opposed to 302 civil writs.
She said she is skeptical of how much experience in criminal law Chase gained while drafting opinions for the Supreme Court. “It’s not the same thing. Reading a brief and reading case law is not the same as being in court every day,” she said.
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One of her most notable moments on the bench has been overseeing the sprawling 110’ers street gang case, which involved 15 defendants.
The Metropolitan Crime Commission ranked Flemings-Davillier in a tie for last place in its annual ranking of judicial efficiency at Criminal District Court. It said the average felony case took 200 days to wind its way through her courtroom in 2015, far above the courthouse average of 130 days. On the other hand, she also boasted the second-largest caseload reduction in 2015.
Flemings-Davillier pointed to the complexity of some of her cases — like the massive 110’ers prosecution — as well as the fact that she inherited the court’s largest backlog of cases upon her election. Many of her cases also remain open longer because she insists that defendants pay restitution to victims, she said.
The judge said she thinks her criminal case experience will be important as the 4th Circuit hears appeals springing from the Legislature’s recent reforms of sentencing laws. She also sees a place for judges to weigh in on future legislation about Louisiana’s stringent habitual-offender laws.
“Sometimes I feel like (judges) should have a little more discretion (in sentencing), because there are mitigating or even aggravating circumstances,” she said.
Flemings-Davillier’s endorsements include the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, state Sen. Troy Carter and City Councilwoman Stacy Head.