Just hours before they might have tried to qualify for reelection, the Louisiana Supreme Court effectively ended the judicial careers of well-known Baton Rouge District Judge Janice Clark and New Orleans Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell, in a ruling that upheld a mandatory retirement age of 70 for all judges.
Both Clark, 73, and Cantrell, 72, filed suits challenging the age requirements, which allow judges to stay on the bench if they turn 70 during one of their terms, but bar them from seeking another term after turning 70.
The Louisiana Supreme Court issued a ruling late Tuesday that found "no merit" in Clark and Cantrell's assertions that those rules discriminated against them and violated various rights, and the court ruled that changing the mandatory retirement age could only happen with a change to the state constitution. Voters roundly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment in 2014 that would have done away with the age requirements.
With legal challenges to Louisiana's mandatory retirement age for judges pending in Baton Rouge and New Orleans — and qualifying for this fall…
Clark’s forced retirement from the 19th Judicial District Court bench marks the end of an era, as she is one of the most well-known and powerful elected officials in Baton Rouge. She has served there since 1992 and said when she filed her lawsuit that she felt like her work was not finished.
Even before she took the bench, she wielded power: Clark led a group of Black lawyers in a 1986 lawsuit over the state’s judicial system that led to a settlement carving out majority Black voting blocs for district, appellate and juvenile courts. Since taking the bench, she’s also had several controversial brushes with other judges, but they never seemed to affect her high-profile status on the bench.
In 2014, after the Louisiana Judiciary Commission recommended a public censure for Clark after finding that she improperly dismissed a lawsuit and questioned a plaintiff without a lawyer present, the Supreme Court cleared Clark of wrongdoing and rejected any public discipline for her.
The year before, she was at the center of a recusal dispute when she was just one of two judges in her courthouse who did not voluntarily recuse themselves from a criminal case involving a colleague’s son. The Supreme Court eventually forced all the judges to recuse themselves and appointed a special judge to hear the case.
Janice Clark, the 19th Judicial District Court's senior judge, has filed a lawsuit challenging Louisiana's mandatory retirement age for member…
Clark did not return a request for comment on Wednesday.
Cantrell, the father in law of New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, has also garnered plenty of publicity in his years on the bench in New Orleans, first as a magistrate commissioner in 1998 and then after his election as a magistrate judge in 2013. In that role, Cantrell sets bail for criminal defendants.
Over the years, Cantrell’s critics have argued that he sets large bail amounts for homeless people, high school students and others who cannot afford them. After a federal lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon ruled in 2018 that Cantrell has a “substantial” conflict of interest setting bail amounts, since fees on top of bails help pay for his operating budget.
The ruling was upheld on appeal.
Cantrell, like Clark, was also able to maintain his position despite whatever controversy he may have stepped in: He was reelected without opposition in 2014 despite headlines at the time about him owing $600,000 in back taxes to the IRS.
His attorney, Darleen Jacobs, said she didn’t get word of the Supreme Court decision until a 6:30 p.m. Tuesday phone call. She does not expect to appeal to federal court or apply for a rehearing in state court, since Cantrell drew only two dissenters to his side.
Jacobs called it “very unusual” for the Supreme Court to intervene in a case in the way it had with Cantrell’s, but she added that the Supreme Court has near-absolute supervisory authority.
Jacobs said she was disappointed with the court decision, and she hoped that the Legislature will present voters with a ballot measure to eliminate judicial age limits next year.
“I don't think a judge should be forced to give up his law practice and not be able to run for reelection,” she said. “To me, age is just a number. And there are a lot of lawyers that are over 70 that practice.”
Federal judges, who are appointed for life, are permitted to retire fully or take “senior status” with full pay and benefits once they turn 65, depending on how long they’ve served. Some, however, prefer to keep overseeing busy dockets well into their 80s, and nothing prevents them from doing so.
The Louisiana Supreme Court ruling underscored that Louisiana judges are allowed to serve out their terms past age 70, but that they are not allowed to seek reelection for another term.
In a per curiam decision, meaning it was not attributed to any particular justice, the Supreme Court also gave clarity on a case left unresolved from several years ago when Orleans Parish Criminal District Judge Frank Marullo Jr. won an election at age 74. The Supreme Court took him off the bench for more than a year while he pursued a case that he should be allowed to continue serving, but he retired before the issue was resolved. The ruling from Tuesday said the Marullo case was overruled "to the extent that it held otherwise."
The high court's ruling was unusual for several reasons, among them being that the Supreme Court took up the case without rulings from district or appeals courts on it — the normal avenues that would result in a case on their docket. Last week, the Louisiana Attorney General's Office asked the Supreme Court to dismiss Clark and Cantrell's lawsuits ahead of qualifying for the fall elections, as many judges are up for election.
The Supreme Court apparently granted that request, though Justice Scott Crichton disagreed with the court's decision to do so.
"Intervention prior to lower court action is not warranted in this instance," he wrote in a denial of Attorney General Jeff Landry's writ application.
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, who herself has hit the age limit and cannot run for reelection this fall, dissented from the ruling that upheld the mandatory retirement ages.
State Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard filed Wednesday to run for the judgeship Cantrell now holds. Two candidates filed for Clark’s judgeship in Baton Rouge: Dele Adebamiji and William Jorden.