Judge Janice Clark

Judge Janice Clark

Janice Clark, the 19th Judicial District Court's senior judge, has filed a lawsuit challenging Louisiana's mandatory retirement age for members of the judiciary. She says that preventing the election of people over age 70 to the bench is "completely unfair."

Clark is 73.

She sued the state Monday, claiming the mandatory judicial retirement age amounts to unconstitutional age discrimination. She said she will file paperwork next month to seek another term.

"I expect to run and win," she said Tuesday during an interview in her 19th JDC office.

She is joined in the suit by a nonprofit association called Louisiana Voters for an Experienced Judiciary, or LVEJ.

The lawsuit, filed in the 19th JDC and assigned to state District Judge Don Johnson, seeks to halt enforcement of the mandatory retirement age while the suit plays out.

"It's just a denial of equal protection," she said. "It might be law, but it's not justice. It's completely unfair. Justice for all. That's all we want."

The state Attorney General's Office declined comment.

Clark has served on the 19th JDC bench since 1992.

"The way I feel is that my work is not finished," she said. "I know there's something I can contribute."

The lawsuit claims that nearly 60 judges from across the state would be prevented from taking office again after the November election if the age cap stands.

"Petitioners believe that there is no legitimate reason to discriminate … against someone who desires to serve as a Judge simply based on the age of that individual," lawyers Ernest L. Johnson and Arthur R. Thomas argue in the lawsuit.

LVEJ desires to retain wise and experienced judges, the lawsuit says.

"Petitioners allege that, in an elective system, the voters, not the legislature or the Louisiana Judiciary Commission, shall decide when a judge will no longer be allowed to serve," the lawsuit states.

The Judiciary Commission is named as a defendant in the suit because, barring a change to the age cap, it is the agency that would actually have to remove Clark from the bench if she wins election to another term.

State voters upheld the age cap in 2014.

Even though the state Constitution sets a mandatory retirement age of 70 for judges, it allows them to serve out the remainder of their terms if they reach that age while in office.

Applying the mandatory retirement age only to judges who are 70 or over when they are elected is a violation of their rights to equal protection, Clark and LVEJ contend. They also note that the age limitation does not apply to ad hoc judges, who frequently serve well past the age of 70 while discharging their duties "competently and fairly."

Clark and the association also allege that the age limitation is "completely arbitrary" in that it was not the result of any empirical data or "any findings that judges over the age of 70 possessed any characteristics that would interfere with the performance of their duties."

"Further still, any health-based rationale for imposing an age limit of 70 in 1973 (the existence of which Petitioners strenuously deny) would no longer be relevant in 2020, after almost five decades of significant medical advances in the field of medicine and the treatment of older individuals," the suit argues.

The 1921 Louisiana constitution had set the mandatory retirement age for state judges at 75. The 1974 state constitution capped the age at 70.

Clark said the retirement age for judges prior to the 1921 Constitution was 80.

Clark isn't the first Louisiana judge to challenge the mandatory judicial retirement age.

In April, New Orleans Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell, 72, filed a lawsuit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court seeking to have the judicial age cap declared null and void. The lawsuit is pending.

Cantrell is New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell's father-in-law.

Several years ago, long-tenured Orleans Parish Criminal District Judge Frank Marullo Jr. won a spot on the ballot and a majority of the vote at the age of 74, but the question of whether he could actually serve was left unresolved. The state Supreme Court took him off the bench for more than a year while he pressed his claim that he should be allowed to run past age 70 and continue serving.

In the end, Marullo resigned before the case was decided. He retired on his 76th birthday and was Louisiana's longest-serving judge.

The mandatory judicial retirement age also could be an issue in a Baton Rouge City Court race currently on the July 11 ballot.

Johnell Matthews, one of five candidates in the race, was 69 when she qualified in January to run in what was to be an April 4 election, but the coronavirus pandemic and resulting statewide stay-at-home order pushed the election date back. She turned 70 this month. Matthews says she should not be penalized for circumstances that are entirely out of her control.

Clark is no stranger to litigation.

In 1986, before she became a judge, she led a group of Black lawyers in a lawsuit against the state over its judicial system. At the time there were only a dozen Black judges, most in New Orleans, out of more than 200 in Louisiana.

A legal settlement agreed to by then-Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1992 carved out 25 subdistricts from the state's district, appellate and juvenile courts, creating majority Black voting blocs from which to elect judges.

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