Judge Beau Higginbotham, who has sat on the 19th Judicial District Court's criminal bench for six years, is fighting for what he calls his "rightful claim to the civil bench."

What had been an in-house dispute among Higginbotham and his 19th JDC colleagues over who had the most seniority — and the right to move into a vacant civil seat on the Baton Rouge-based state court — has gone public. Higginbotham has sued.

A majority of Higginbotham's colleagues snubbed him for the civil seat vacated by retired 19th JDC Judge Janice Clark, instead allowing Judge Ron Johnson to move from the criminal bench to the civil bench, taking Clark's spot. Higginbotham has, in turn, sued East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk Doug Welborn, saying the longtime clerk rejected Higginbotham's request that Welborn assign civil cases to him.

Welborn told Higginbotham that the clerk of court lacked the authority to do what the judge had requested.

A hearing in the case is scheduled Monday.

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. Johnson, the twin brother of longtime 19th JDC Judge Don Johnson, also was elected in fall 2019.


There are 15 judges on the 19th JDC bench — eight with a criminal docket and seven with a civil docket.

A majority of Higginbotham's colleagues decided he lost his seniority on the court when he switched criminal divisions and, therefore, lost his right to lay claim to the vacant civil seat.

Higginbotham, however, argues there was "no gap" in his service on the court.

The 19th JDC approved a new policy in mid-2019 that said judges are allowed, on the basis of "overall seniority," the opportunity to move from their present section to take over a vacant section.

The policy also provided that once a judge exercises the option to move from their present section to take over a vacant section, he or she will not retain seniority for the purpose of future moves and, instead, will go to the bottom of the "Seniority for Moves" list.

"Because Judge Higginbotham had no gap in service ... Judge Higginbotham's 'overall seniority' remained as December 30, 2014 because ... Judge Higginbotham's uninterrupted service on the bench began on December 30, 2014," he claims in a lawsuit filed against Welborn on Dec. 23 and amended Jan. 4.

Higginbotham's motion to be assigned to the civil bench failed at a Dec. 9 meeting of the 19th JDC judges.

Judge Don Johnson then moved to assign the vacant civil bench seat to his brother, and the motion was approved, the lawsuit says.


Higginbotham is asking an ad hoc judge, Emile St. Pierre, appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court, to hear the case to recognize his seniority on the 19th JDC and order Welborn to allot civil cases to him.

"The 19th Judicial District Court is moving forward with the process to allot civil cases to Judge Ronald Johnson despite Plaintiff's rightful claim to the civil bench," Higginbotham's amended lawsuit claims.

Higginbotham argues that even if his seniority begins on Oct. 21, 2019, the date of his oath of office in Division C, he still has more seniority than Ron Johnson because his oath is dated Dec. 12, 2019.


Welborn said Wednesday in a written statement that his office enjoys "great working relationships" with all of the 19th JDC judges and "we strive to be as accommodating to them as possible."

The clerk noted that Higginbotham's litigation against the Clerk of Court's Office involves a dispute among the judges concerning court sections and divisions.

"It is hoped that the lawsuit will ultimately result in providing clearer guidance concerning our role and authority in that process, and we will follow the decision of the Court," Welborn said. "Regardless of the outcome in this matter, we look forward to continuing a successful working relationship with all of the judges and their staffs."

Higginbotham said Sunday he could not comment on pending legislation, as Ron Johnson did previously.

In a Dec. 10 email, Don Johnson explained to his fellow 19th JDC judges that when a judge resigns from an elected office, there is no continuous service, according to the lawsuit. Don Johnson explained in a later Dec. 18 email that Higginbotham's seniority began anew when he resigned from his Division M seat and assumed the Division C seat on Oct. 21, 2019.

Higginbotham claims Welborn erroneously concluded that he did not have the authority to allot civil cases to Higginbotham. He adds that the clerk of court failed to perform his ministerial duty required by law.

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