Orleans Parish voters will return to the polls Saturday to decide a runoff for a Civil District Court judgeship dedicated to family law — a race in which there is no incumbent.
Monique Barial and Janet Ahern emerged as the leading vote-getters in a three-way primary Nov. 4, finishing ahead of Michelle Scott-Bennett. Barial came out about 4,700 votes ahead but couldn’t avoid a runoff, taking 39 percent of the ballots to Ahern’s 34 percent.
The winner of Saturday’s election will serve a six-year term beginning Jan. 1.
The seat became a dedicated family law or domestic section after Judge Michael Bagneris stepped down from the Civil District Court bench last year to run for mayor of New Orleans. Family law judges handle matters such as divorce, custody and child support.
In interviews last week, both remaining candidates expressed confidence about their prospects for election and said they’re excited to enter the home stretch of the campaign.
“We’re out there working every day and trying to meet as many people as possible,” Barial said.
“Our message has been since (the Nov. 4 election) that it’s not done yet,” she added. “We can’t stop fighting, and we have to work as though we’re still coming from behind.”
Ahern, 53, has been practicing family law for more than 21 years. More than anything, she has sought to highlight her experience on the campaign trail.
In a direct mailer containing a list of endorsements, including that of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, she portrayed Barial as lacking experience in virtually every aspect of family law.
“If you look at my credentials versus my opponent, there’s no question that I am the more qualified person for this race,” Ahern said. “I have handled over 700 family law cases in my career.”
Running her first campaign for public office, Barial, 43, has underscored the insights she said she gained working as a minute clerk under Civil District Court Judge Chris Bruno, who handled the domestic docket during his first three years at the court.
Barial also has represented plaintiffs and defendants as an attorney in family court. If elected, she said, she would not have a learning curve and “can hit the ground running on day one.”
“Having worked on that docket, I saw all kinds of different people come through the court system, many of whom did not have representation,” she said. “You see the frustration on their faces and you hear it in their voices.”
Barial, who has been endorsed by Sheriff Marlin Gusman, among others, said she was encouraged by the Nov. 4 results considering the short amount of time she’s been campaigning. Unlike Ahern, who announced her intention to run for the judgeship in 2012, Barial didn’t begin campaigning until early August because she was an employee of the court. “I really was playing from a position from behind,” she said.
Ahern, who began her career as a prosecutor and ran unsuccessfully for a Civil District Court judgeship in 2001, said she intends to improve the efficiency of the court’s docket in part by staggering cases according to complexity. She said she also would seek to piece together a network of service providers available to offer counseling and support to children and parents, and that she wants to increase assistance for pro se litigants — people who appear before the court without an attorney. Another goal of hers is to review the docket to prevent people from having to appear in court if their cases can’t be heard that day.
Barial, meanwhile, has said she would apply the law fairly to everyone and protect victims of domestic violence by issuing timely protective orders.
She also said she will be available for emergency filings, especially around family-oriented holidays.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.