The elevation of one judge to an appellate court and the retirement of another have created a rare occurrence — two open seats on the 22nd Judicial District Court bench — and both openings have drawn two candidates in the Oct. 14 special election to fill the unexpired terms.
The 22nd Judicial District, which covers St. Tammany and Washington parishes, has 12 judges in all.
In Division E, Judge William Burris, who has held the seat since 1997, announced in May that he was retiring with three years left in his term. His son, Franklinton attorney Billy Burris, and Jay Adair, who left his job as an assistant district attorney for the campaign, are running to replace him.
The opening in Division H resulted from the election of Judge Allison Penzato to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge in January. She was the lone candidate to qualify to replace Judge Ernie Drake Jr., who retired. Attorneys Reginald Laurent and Alan Zaunbrecher then qualified to run for the remainder of her term, which also expires in 2020.
Candidates in both races — all of whom are Republicans — have focused on their legal resumés and personal character in the low-key campaigns.
Adair, 47, a first-time candidate for public office, is running on his nearly 17 years of experience as a prosecutor, eight of them in the 22nd Judicial District Attorney's Office.
He said he has successfully prosecuted child sex offenders, murderers, human traffickers and other felons in both parishes. That gives him the most trial and courtroom experience, he said, noting that 70 percent of the cases and 90 percent of the jury trials allotted to judges in the 22nd Judicial District are criminal.
"People want to live in a safe community," Adair said. "They want the community that they've chosen to reside in, conduct business in and raise a family in to be safe. I feel uniquely capable ... to share with them that I've dedicated my career to not only public service but keeping the parish safe."
As a prosecutor, he said, he was 100 percent responsible for a criminal docket, which means he will have less of a learning curve in managing a docket as a judge.
A native of Metairie, Adair received his undergraduate degree from the University of Richmond and his law degree from LSU. He is married with three children and lives in Mandeville.
Burris, 35, is also making his first run for office, although he said he had planned to seek a judgeship for years. Division E has a sentimental attachment for Burris because it was his father's seat, he said. But he also cited the importance of having a judge on the court live in Washington Parish. Someone needs to be available to sign warrants in the middle of the night, and historically, Division E has been that seat, he said.
Burris said his 10 years in private law practice have given him experience in dealing with individuals. "Having that experience ... is a huge benefit, because I know what the plaintiff and the defendant are thinking because I've represented all those people," he said.
While prosecuting crimes is important, Burris said, it's only one area of the law, and district judges also handle civil law, juvenile law, probate law — "if you can name it, these judges can hear it." Since his father was a judge, Burris was not able to work as a prosecutor, but he said he has done criminal defense work, mostly in Bogalusa City Court.
Burris praised the specialty courts in the 22nd Judicial District for which judges volunteer their time and said he would want to continue the alcohol treatment court and family preservation court, which helps pregnant women with substance abuse issues to stay off drugs so that their children are not born addicted.
A native of Franklinton, Burris is married with two children. He received his undergraduate degree from LSU and his law degree from the Southern University Law Center.
In Division H, both candidates have sought public office before. Laurent ran for Slidell city judge in 2004 when Judge Gary Dragon died, losing to James Lamz, and Zaunbrecher ran for an open seat on Division G on the 22nd Judicial District bench, losing to Scott Gardner.
Laurent, 64, who has raised less money than Zaunbrecher, said he is running a grass-roots campaign that appeals to voters who are tired of the established order and big money determining who will serve on the judiciary.
"The issue of the divisiveness in our country and community, as I see it, needs to be bridged," Laurent said. As a native of eastern St. Tammany and an African-American, he said he is the ideal person to bridge the east-west divide in St. Tammany and the divide between poor black communities and more affluent areas.
He said he wants to establish a mentorship court that would address the lack of personal responsibility that he he has seen as a city prosecutor.
Laurent, who received his undergraduate degree from LSU and his law degree from Tulane, points to 30 years of broad legal experience. He said he has handled thousands of criminal cases as Slidell city prosecutor since 2011 and has represented clients in criminal and civil litigation.
Married with two daughters, he also has worked as a defense attorney and chief legal counsel for the New Orleans Police Department.
Zaunbrecher, 63, is running on his 38 years of experience as a litigator, mediator and arbitrator. The latter role involves the same kinds of things a judge does, he said.
A founding partner of Zaunbrecher, Treadaway and Bollinger, he has done insurance defense work and also has represented public bodies in his role as a special assistant attorney general.
Zaunbrecher said he spent two years working for the 22nd Judicial District Attorney's Office on a volunteer basis to gain experience in criminal law.
He said he wants to take ideas from other jurisdictions to make the 22nd Judicial District more efficient and effective. "I'm committed to work harder, not to accept as an explanation for a particular process or procedure or policy that that's the way it's always been," he said.
Married with three children, he received his undergraduate and law degrees from Tulane.