Johnell Matthews

Johnell Matthews

A judge Tuesday ordered the Secretary of State to clear the way for the top vote-getter in last month's special City Court election to take office even though the candidate who lost by a 2-1 margin is still challenging the result.

Johnell Matthews won the Aug. 15 election, but Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin had been reluctant to declare her the winner while Whitney Higginbotham Greene claims she has a right to the Division C seat. District Judge Trudy White said he had to.

Ardoin told White he would comply, pleasing Matthews' lawyer.

"Finally, after 24 days of intentional delay, Ms. Matthews, hopefully within 24 hours, will be able to get her commission and go back to work for the people who elected her," Matthews' lawyer Mary Olive Pierson said.

Greene, who received 37% of the vote in the Aug. 15 runoff, challenged the result, saying Matthews is ineligible to serve because she was past age 70, the mandatory retirement age for sitting judges.

Matthews turned 70 before the July 11 primary, but was 69 and not a sitting judge when she qualified and when the election had initially been scheduled. The election was delayed from the spring until July because of the coronavirus.

Another 19th District judge, William Morvant, had left Matthews on the ballot before the runoff and last week declared her the winner. 

Matthews, in the meantime, took Ardoin to court to demand he certify the election results even as Greene seeks an appeal. 

Pierson argued Tuesday that Ardoin had failed to fulfill his duties as Secretary of State when he didn't certify the results "promptly," a distinction made for special elections and a different timeline from the usual 30-day mark for general elections

Ardoin's lawyer, Jeffrey Cody, explained that Ardoin was waiting until there is a ruling on Greene's appeal before certifying the results. 

"The secretary of state isn't trying to drag his feet," Cody said.

White, however, said the type of appeal Greene filed would not suspend Matthews' commission to the bench. 

"It would not stop the secretary from state, in my opinion, certifying the election," White said.

After Pierson questioned Ardoin about his knowledge of the duties of his office, she dropped her request that Ardoin pay fines and fees, a move that placated Ardoin's lawyer. Ardoin then told the judge he would accept her ruling should she order him to certify the results. 

The City Court Division C term expires at the end of 2024. It became vacant when Tarvald Smith was elected to seat on the 19th District bench.

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