A 19th Judicial District criminal judge is taking his seniority-based fight for a civil seat on the Baton Rouge state court to an appeals court.

Judge Beau Higginbotham's lawyers also indicated in a court filing Wednesday that they're prepared to take their case to the Louisiana Supreme Court if the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal doesn't rule in their favor.

Higginbotham, who has served on the 19th Judicial District Court criminal bench since 2015, sued East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court Doug Welborn in December after Welborn declined the judge's request to assign civil cases to him.

Earlier that month, a majority of Higginbotham's 19th JDC colleagues turned down his seniority-based request to move into the civil seat that longtime Judge Janice Clark relinquished when she retired Dec. 31.

A retired judge appointed by the Supreme Court to hear Higginbotham's lawsuit ruled last week that, because the judge's beef is with the colleagues who snubbed him for the civil seat, he must add them to the lawsuit.

Higginbotham's attorneys filed notice Wednesday of their intent to appeal ad hoc Judge Emile St. Pierre's decision. They alleged that Welborn declined to perform his "clear and specific ministerial duty" to begin allotting civil cases to Higginbotham. The clerk of court denies that allegation.

St. Pierre ruled that what Higginbotham requested of Welborn was not purely ministerial and concluded that the 19th JDC judges are indispensable parties in the litigation. He gave Higginbotham 30 days from his Feb. 2 ruling to amend the lawsuit and add more defendants. Higginbotham's lawyers are asking the judge to extend that deadline.

The lawyers -- James Garner, Stuart Kottle and former 1st Circuit Judge James Kuhn -- said they want to seek appellate review of St. Pierre's ruling before making any amendments to the lawsuit because a ruling in Higginbotham's favor "would prevent suit against his fellow judges."

Nine of Higginbotham's 19th JDC colleagues told Welborn's office in a Jan. 4 order to allot the civil cases that formerly would have gone to Janice Clark to Judge Ron Johnson. A week later, a second order from 10 of the court's 15 judges informed the clerk's office that Johnson and fellow 19th JDC Judge Kelly Balfour would evenly share those civil cases while also splitting a criminal docket.

Higginbotham, the son of former 1st Circuit Judge Toni Higginbotham and ex-19th JDC Judge Leo Higginbotham, testified at a hearing last month that he was "next in line" in terms of seniority for the civil docket that Clark relinquished when she retired.

Higginbotham was elected to the 19th JDC Division M seat in fall 2014, then to the Division C seat nearer to his home in fall 2019. Ron Johnson, the twin brother of longtime 19th JDC Judge Don Johnson, also was elected in fall 2019.

A majority of Higginbotham's colleagues decided he lost his seniority on the court when he switched criminal divisions, and lost his right to lay claim to Clark's old civil seat. Higginbotham's lawsuit, however, argues there was "no gap" in his service on the court.


Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.