Orleans Parish voters heading to the polls on Nov. 4 will decide four Civil District Court races, choosing from among a diverse pool of candidates ranging from seasoned jurists to political newcomers.
Three incumbent judges have drawn challengers, and another robe is up for grabs in a three-way contest for a newly dedicated domestic section. That campaign could require a Dec. 6 runoff if no candidate garners a majority of the vote.
The judges serve six-year terms that begin Jan. 1.
Aside from a qualifications challenge against one of the domestic court candidates, the races have generated relatively little publicity and election-season drama. With few exceptions, the campaigns have been as civil as the judgeships on the ballot.
“These are fairly low-temperature contests,” said Ed Chervenak, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans who keeps a close eye on New Orleans elections. “There’s not been much controversy in any of these campaigns.”
Perhaps the highest-profile match-up pits Judge Lloyd Medley Jr., the longtime incumbent, against Nakisha Ervin-Knott, a well-known attorney who has become increasingly critical of the pace of proceedings in Division D.
Ervin-Knott has spoken out about “a lack of efficiency” in Medley’s courtroom, which she said has become known for “undue delay.” She likened practicing in Medley’s court to playing a football game in which neither team knows where the end zone is because it’s unmarked.
“If you cannot get a trial date in a division, the parties oftentimes don’t come together and are unable to even know where the goal line is,” Ervin-Knott said. “I think people are looking at this race, and they want new leadership. They want someone who is not just willing to be elected but willing to serve.”
Medley, speaking from his chambers, said his opponent “doesn’t understand how judges run their docket,” noting that he was in the midst of a jury trial even as he spoke.
“I always say she’s a nice lady, but I’ve been doing the job that she’s running for for 18 years,” Medley said. “If I had a problem with my docket slowing down or not moving, the Supreme Court would investigate me, and they have never done that.”
Ervin-Knott, 40, is a partner at Gainsburgh, Benjamin, David, Meunier & Warshauer, a firm that handles personal injury, commercial litigation and class actions, among other cases. She’s been a trial lawyer for 16 years, practicing primarily in Civil District Court. She ran for the Division E judgeship in 2011 but lost to Clare Jupiter.
If elected, Ervin-Knott said, she’d be respectful of litigants’, jurors’ and attorneys’ time, “which includes starting court on time and not prolonging matters.”
“I think the main thing is my willingness to roll up my sleeves and do the work,” she said.
Medley, 65, a former Traffic Court prosecutor, was elected to the Civil District Court bench in 1996 and previously served as chief judge. If elected to a fourth term, he said, he would establish a committee of lawyers and stakeholders to lobby lawmakers for “adequate funding” to improve the court’s operations and the dilapidated courthouse.
“I’ve been in public service most of my life,” Medley said. “I like interacting with the public, and I think I’ve done well with my job.”
Judge Chris Bruno, of Division F, is seeking to turn back a challenge from Ruth Ramsey, a first-time candidate who Bruno says lacks the experience to preside in Civil District Court. Since taking the bench, Bruno said, he’s made “a major difference in how my court is run,” citing a docket that’s “completely up to date.”
“I want to continue to do what I’ve done,” he said, “and that is to make the system work for everyone, not just the lawyers and the litigants but everybody who plays a role in that system.”
“The lawyers are happy,” he added. “I make the lawyers work very hard, though.”
Ramsey, 51, the sister of City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, has worked as vice president and general counsel for Liberty Bank and before that was an appellate conference attorney at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Ramsey, responding to a New Orleans Advocate candidate questionnaire, vowed to be an impartial jurist and “ensure that all litigants have a fair opportunity to be heard in court.”
“I will treat all people who come into the courtroom with respect and dignity,” she said.
Bruno, 53, who was first elected in 2008, previously worked at the Bruno & Bruno law firm, beginning in 1979. “I have had 20 years of heavy litigation practice trying jury trials,” he said, saying his opponent’s experience does not compare with his. If re-elected, he said, he would continue “to implement new methods to streamline cases through the legal system to lessen the time that litigants, witnesses and jurors are away from work and family.”
Ramsey wasn’t available for an interview Friday.
Domestic Section 1
In Civil District Court’s first domestic section, incumbent Bernadette D’Souza has squared off against Taetrece Harrison, an attorney who survived a formal challenge to her qualifications to remain in the race.
A New Orleans native, Harrison, 47, said she wants to modernize the court and offer more resources to families enduring emotionally charged court proceedings. Harrison — whose law firm specializes in domestic violence cases, foreclosures and visitation rights — said many lawyers she knows complain about a “lack of control” in D’Souza’s court.
“I’ve felt that, the few times I’ve been in there, it was a little unorganized,” Harrison said. “Most of the people who I’ve talked to, men and women, have felt that there’s been a lot of unfairness.”
D’Souza dismisses that criticism. “She’s done this time and again at every forum, saying she runs into people who tell her stuff and that’s why she’s running,” D’Souza said of Harrison. “How could you be running on something you heard on the street and you’re not even in my courtroom?”
D’Souza, who took the bench in early 2012, said she is campaigning on her expertise in family law and the measures she’s taken to bring best practices to New Orleans’ first dedicated family court in many years, including a pilot mediation program. Since taking office, she has presided over about 12,000 trials, rules and motions, she said.
“I was really instrumental in working with the Legislature to get this court we desperately needed,” D’Souza said. “You need to have the experience, the background, the dedication, the compassion to do this work. It’s not just another judgeship.”
D’Souza, a 60-year-old native of India, previously worked as managing attorney of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services and as an adjunct professor at Tulane University Law School. “My whole focus was in this area of law,” she said.
Harrison, running for office for the first time, opened her law firm in 2008 feeling that “New Orleans needed an attorney that cared more about families and community than hourly rates,” according to her website. A single mother who handled her own divorce proceedings, Harrison said she’s uniquely positioned to understand the needs of people who find themselves in family court.
“I’ve had to do it myself,” she said. “I definitely can truly relate to any issue that these people can bring before me.”
Harrison’s credentials were challenged in a lawsuit that claimed she hadn’t been admitted to practice in Louisiana long enough to run for judge. She said she prevailed by showing she’d been admitted to the bar on Oct. 12, 2006, and reached the required eight years of experience three weeks before the Nov. 4 election.
Domestic Section 2
Among the least contentious contests on the ballot is the three-way race for Civil District Court’s second domestic section, a seat that became dedicated to family law cases after Judge Michael Bagneris stepped down to run for mayor of New Orleans. “We are actually all quite friendly,” said Michelle Scott-Bennett, who faces fellow candidates Monique Barial and Janet Ahern. ?Scott-Bennett, 43, runs the Justice for All Law Center, a family law practice she opened 17 years ago. She said this election marks an important transition for Civil District Court, which under legislation passed a few years ago is moving away from the “revolving door of usually the youngest or most inexperienced judges handling the family docket” before they moved on to the regular civil docket.
That previous rotation, Scott-Bennett said, “created a cycle of inconsistency because you really didn’t have judges who were interested necessarily in doing family law.”
Scott-Bennett said she’s the only candidate in the race who has experience on the bench, having served for several months as an ad hoc domestic commissioner in Jefferson Parish. “This is my time to stop complaining about things and get out there and be part of the solution for it,” said Scott-Bennett, who wants to cut down on wait times in family court cases.
Ahern, 53, who began her career as a prosecutor, has been practicing family law for more than 21 years.
“I’ve represented over 500 families and done every kind of case you can imagine in a family law arena,” she said. “The depth and the breadth of my practice is much greater than either of my opponents.”
Ahern, who ran unsuccessfully for a judgeship in 2001, said she has gained widespread support because she’s viewed as a seasoned practitioner who is “actually in the trenches” and knows what’s needed to run the court. If elected, she said, she’d like to string together a network of service providers available to offer counseling and support to children and parents.
Barial, 43, said she had an invaluable vantage point on the intricacies of family law when she worked as a minute clerk under Bruno, the Division F judge who handled the domestic docket during the first three years of his term.
“I don’t have a learning curve. I can hit the ground running on day one,” Barial said. “Most of my jobs since law school have leaned toward public service or working with the public.”
Barial said she also is the only candidate in the race who has a “blended family,” referring to the daughter who joined her family when she got married. “That gives me a very unique perspective as to what people who are coming through the family court actually experience on a daily basis,” she said.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.