Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Yolanda King hasn’t taken the bench for five months while under suspension pending prosecution for allegedly lying about where she lived when she qualified to run for the office last year.
Her shaky incumbency has drawn a flock of challengers for her Section E judgeship, which Mayor Mitch Landrieu tried to eliminate in a legal flurry that ended in King’s favor.
Five hopefuls, including four women, are vying to replace King and take over the only contested seat among the five that remain on a court that critics claim has the most unneeded judges of any in the city.
The primary election is Nov. 4. A runoff election is likely; it would be held Dec. 6.
King, who won the seat in a surprise runoff victory in May 2013, is defiant, claiming she’s a victim of political payback.
She said her prosecution is the result of unnamed “political operatives” making good on threats made to her to get out of the race last year before she beat former Jefferson Parish prosecutor Doug Hammel in a runoff. She said she took those threats to the FBI.
“The FBI took my case and for two months they audioed and videoed all the threats that had been made by the political operatives. At that point, they submitted it to the Department of Justice,” she said.
So far, nothing has come of that alleged investigation. Meanwhile, state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office is gunning for King on accusations that she falsely claimed a New Orleans address when she actually lived at a house she owns in Slidell.
Even if she hasn’t been able to don the robe since May, that doesn’t mean she’s not working for her $146,000 salary, King said.
“The only thing I can’t do is sit on the bench. It doesn’t stop me from improving and preparing for a return to the bench. I can attend en banc (meetings of the court’s judges). I can do streamlining of my docket, develop template forms,” she said.
In her year in a black robe, King was seen by some as a prosecution-friendly judge who was far more prone than other judges to place juvenile offenders behind bars.
“I’m firm but I’m fair,” said King, a former Orleans Parish prosecutor. “I’m not locking up all children, as some people have said I do. Everything I do is for a reason. I’d rather do that to save your life, so you could have a life.”
In the meantime, she said, she’s campaigning hard at churches, repeating a formula that won her the seat.
“I’m going to win. I think people recognize a smear campaign,” she said. “When I’m victorious and found to be innocent, it’s worth it.”
Her challengers come from an array of backgrounds, with most treading lightly around King’s legal troubles in their campaigns.
Jacqueline Carroll-Gilds is hoping the second time is a charm, after running last in a four-person race for another Juvenile Court seat in 2010. She boasts a background as both a lawyer and a psychiatric nurse.
For several years before Hurricane Katrina, Carroll-Gilds ran Bridging the Gap, a mental health agency for at-risk youth. She said she’s noticed a shift to a more insular Juvenile Court that doesn’t work as much with outside social services agencies. She hopes to tap into those groups and also to secure a host of federal grants she said are ripe for the taking.
“There are so many services out there that we can filter these kids through. They’re here to save our youth,” she said.
Carroll-Gilds also pointed to the need for anger management for juvenile offenders.
She said she aims at programs that reach kids before they enter the criminal justice system — “kids who are disrespectful, going out of the window at night. We need to capture those mothers right now and give them help,” she said.
Carroll-Gilds said she understands why Landrieu wants to shrink the court, noting that juvenile crime rates are decreasing. She said she’s against putting juveniles behind bars “unless it’s absolutely necessary and the safety of our community is in jeopardy.”
“I’m even-tempered, I’m fair and I know the population,” she said.
Ernest ‘Freddie’ Charbonnet
Ernest Charbonnet said he wouldn’t be running if the job just meant putting on a robe.
The private attorney who served in former Mayor Dutch Morial’s administration has run for several political offices, and he served as an appointed interim city councilman after District E Councilman Jon Johnson resigned in 2012 and went to prison.
Charbonnet sees the judgeship as a platform to build a broad-based juvenile justice system. He said he plans to follow successful national models that incorporate schools and state and federal agencies into a coordinated program.
“Imagine a ‘parent university’ where the curriculum is something that actually works,” he said.
He also pointed to an alternative educational program for at-risk youth that Magic Johnson has helped launch in several cities as a tested model for what could happen in New Orleans.
“Everything good is going to be undone if the schools aren’t involved,” he said. “We’re spending money, a lot of it, on a Youth Study Center where the average stay is 21 days. How much of an impact can be made in 21 days? Money is being spent on things that don’t work. This is where the rubber meets the road.”
Charbonnet bristles at the idea that he’s eyeing the Juvenile Court post as a political landing spot after losing other races.
“I have distinguished myself as a hard-working, competent person. I think I’m the right person for this,” he said.
Desiree Cook-Calvin, a private attorney and city hearing officer, boasts a range of experience in criminal and civil law, as well as involvement with the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee and Household of Faith Worship Church.
Cook-Calvin, who also has run for state representative, said she aims to bring all of those influences to bear as judge, seeing a major role in outreach, beyond adjudicating cases. “I think every judge should be actively involved in the community, involved in grass roots,” she said.
She aims to reach kids earlier, with tutoring and evaluation, before delinquency leads to crime.
“I’m personally going to too many funerals where I’m having to console mothers and fathers,” she said. “It’s too many children, and we’re seeing it every day, and it’s just unacceptable to say it’s OK. It’s not OK.”
A mother of three children ages 15 to 18, Cook-Calvin said she aims to use the judgeship to aggressively address the city’s dropout rate. She also said she prides herself on fairness.
“I don’t think confinement in and of itself is the answer, but I’m not going to be a judge that says every juvenile should be free,” she said. ”The biggest thing I’m going to do is make sure we’re rehabilitating.”
Half of Niki Roberts’ dozen years as a prosecutor in Orleans Parish have been spent in Juvenile Court. She is on leave as chief of the DA’s Juvenile Division.
Roberts, who became a mother as a teenager, said she pondered a run for the same seat last year. She said she’d have run for the seat this time regardless of King’s legal woes.
“I’m clearly the one who has the most knowledge about Juvenile Court, the most experience,” she said. “I’m there every day.”
She said she has seen a clear escalation in the number of kids committing murders and other violent offenses. At the district attorney’s discretion, many of those cases are now transferred to adult court — a move that Roberts said she supports in many cases.
In describing her view of the job, Roberts seems to favor a tight adherence to judicial duties rather than lofty ambitions for engineering major changes to the system.
She too would try to collaborate with community groups, schools and businesses, she said. Her background, she said, doesn’t mean she’ll approach the job with a prosecutor’s eye for justice.
“I’m not afraid to say those kids who commit violent offenses and are a threat to the safety of our citizens will go to secure care,” she said. “But just because I’ve spent the past 12 years as a (prosecutor) doesn’t mean I think accountability means secure care for all kids. Some kids just need structure.’ ”
Cynthia Samuel — who lost in the primary for the same seat last year, then lodged a complaint that helped spark King’s prosecution — has spent more than two decades as a family attorney.
On the campaign trail, she tells a personal story that includes growing up in poverty as one of seven children of an artist mother who worked in Jackson Square. Samuel, who had the first of her two children at age 15, never graduated from high school but earned a college degree at UNO and later a law degree at Loyola.
After a few years in the District Attorney’s Office, she has worked mostly in juvenile law. She claims to bring something unique to the job from her background.
“It’s called insight. Insight into those families and the dynamics of the neighborhoods. It allows me to have a different kind of empathy, and it also helps me to understand how to motivate them,” Samuel said. As a judge, she said, she would be focused on funding and tested models.
“There are programs that have been proven to work that can be done by changing the environment of detention,” she said. “Clearly, society must be protected from the ultra-violent kids. You certainly don’t want dangerous kids to go out and kill all the witnesses, but the key is what treatment you give them in that detention environment.
“Bricks and mortar don’t fix kids. Also, I believe in strict discipline. Every single child who comes through my courtroom will do community service.”
The race presents some interesting scenarios involving King’s legal situation.
Should she win re-election, a later conviction could lead the Louisiana Supreme Court to remove her from office.
In the meantime, she’s likely to remain barred from taking the bench until her criminal case is resolved. There has been little action in the case since a judge in August rejected King’s motion to quash the indictment based on her allegation of political payback.
She has pleaded not guilty to a felony count of filing a false public document plus a misdemeanor count of an election code violation.
Another scenario has occurred to some of her opponents: Should King fail to make a runoff, she could resign. That move would effectively eliminate her seat under a state law that took effect in August to reduce the number of judges on the Juvenile Court bench.
Whether King is pondering that option is unknown. She did not return a call Monday for comment.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.