A tort lawyer, a civil rights leader, a television personality and an ordained minister are running for a spot on the Orleans Parish Civil District Court bench.

It might sound like the set-up for a joke, but one of those four candidates will go on to settle serious matters like divorces, child custody cases and contract disputes at the courthouse on Loyola Avenue.

The contenders for the Division J seat on the bench are seeking to fill out the remaining three years in the term of Paula Brown, who was elected to the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal in March. Early voting is underway; the election is Oct. 14.

No clear front-runner has emerged, but corporate defense lawyer Omar Mason is backed by state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson and won the support of fellow attorneys in a New Orleans Bar Association poll.

Some observers, though, give solo practitioner D. Nicole Sheppard an edge because she is the only woman in the race and may have some name recognition thanks to the local talk show she hosts on cable TV. 

Meanwhile, former Orleans Parish School Board general counsel Edward Morris is counting on his work as a public official and a minister to set him apart.

Morris Reed Sr. boasts experience leading the local NAACP and sitting on the Criminal District Court bench in the 1990s.

A runoff seems likely; it would be held Nov. 18.

Omar Mason

Mason, 43, a first-time candidate, served as drum major at McDonogh 35 High School before graduating from LSU and Loyola University law school. Since then he has spent his entire 18-year career in civil practice. He spent several years in Houston after Hurricane Katrina.

Mason said he faced skepticism from other lawyers when he crossed the state line, but he made a quick adjustment to Texas laws. “Within a very short period of time, it was like never missing a beat,” he said. 

Mason said he would bring that adaptability to the civil bench, where he would need to issue rulings in areas, like family law, where he has not previously practiced.

As a partner at the Aaron & Gianna firm, much of Mason’s current work consists of defending companies against asbestos claims. He also has represented plaintiffs in the past.

“In my court, you will get a fair shake, because you will have somebody who has a diverse perspective from representing clients on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

Edward Morris

Morris recalls that after he graduated from Tulane law school in 1983, his grandfather, also named Edward Morris, approached him. 

“You have that little piece of paper now. I want you to promise me two things,” he said. “One, do nothing to disparage my good name. The other is to never forget the little guy.”

Morris, 62, says he kept both promises in his 11 years as in-house counsel for the Orleans Parish School Board. Although corruption scandals swirled around some board members during his tenure, his reputation was never sullied.

“Being in that very politically charged environment certainly helped to hone my skills when you have competing interests,” he said. “It’s a diversity of experience there that certainly helps to season a judge, if you will.”

Before the school board, Morris practiced civil law at the Adams and Reese firm. These days he also serves as pastor to the men’s ministry at the Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church in St. Roch. He said his experience as a minster and as a licensed counselor has taught him patience and compassion. 

“When families show up to the domestic court, they’re in crisis, and part of what I will do is to broaden the base of social services and professional services that we can make available,” he said.

Morris Reed Sr.

Reed is the only candidate with experience on the bench, as a Criminal District Court judge from 1992 to 1996. “It makes sense ... that you would have somebody come aboard that has judicial experience,” he said.

The 68-year-old New Orleans native and Loyola law school graduate also has been a Police Department detective, the first director of the Office of Municipal Investigations and an assistant U.S. attorney. He has mounted losing races for district attorney as well as several judgeships. 

From 2015 to 2016 he was head of the New Orleans NAACP. He protested with other NAACP members outside the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office against the brief release of the white man accused of shooting black former pro football player Joe McKnight.

“It gave me the experience of how to be responsive to the community needs,” Reed said of his time at the civil rights organization. “That was different from being involved in the system as a cop and a prosecutor — to be out there with the grassroots community advocating for justice.”

Although known in the past for his criminal defense work, Reed said the vast majority of his practice now consists of civil lawsuits.

D. Nicole Sheppard

Sheppard made a brief bid for recorder of mortgages as a law student in 2002, then ran a losing race for Traffic Court judge in 2013. Some may know her better for her TV talk show “Real Life."

Sheppard, 43, said she would bring a common touch to a courthouse where litigants too often leave frustrated. “When people are involved in the legal process for years, it wears on them," she said. “One of the things I want to do is expedite our system.”

In addition to a varied general practice that includes family law, Sheppard also claims a role in organizing a warrant amnesty day, an HIV testing day for clergy members and a domestic violence conference.

She promises a special foreclosure court if elected and proposes putting a 90-day halt on foreclosures after a petition has been filed. “Life happens,” she said. “I don’t think that people should just be yanked out of their homes.”

She is endorsed by the Alliance for Good Government.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432