Judge Todd Hernandez, who has served on the 19th Judicial District Court since 2001, is hanging up his black robe at the end of March. But he won't be putting his law books away.
Hernandez, 52, of Zachary, said he plans to resume practicing law, something he did for more than a decade before being elected as a state judge in East Baton Rouge Parish.
"I'm too young to retire. I have two kids in high school," the father of four said with a grin.
When he steps down from the judiciary March 31, Hernandez will leave with a year and nine months remaining on his current six-year term. A special election will have to be called, but no date has been set.
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"Yeah, I'm ready. Eighteen years, and it's gone by fast. It's been quite an experience," Hernandez said during an interview last week in his 19th Judicial District Courthouse office.
"I love what I do. I'm not leaving because I no longer love what I do," he stressed.
Hernandez said he loved practicing law from 1989 to 2001, and knew when he became a judge that he would someday practice law again in Zachary.
"My purpose in going to law school was to help people," he said.
Hernandez said with a smile that he also intends to help his dad take care of his cows once his judicial retirement takes effect.
Hernandez presided over two capital murder trials (Anthony Bell and Sanchez Brumfield) in 2008, his final year as a criminal court judge, and has handled several high-profile civil cases during his tenure as a civil court jurist. Two were governor-related disputes involving the controversial Common Core academic standards and tests and an executive order dealing with LGBT employees in state government agencies.
Bell, who was convicted and condemned to die for killing four in-laws in a Baton Rouge church in 2006 before killing his estranged wife in a nearby parking lot, represented himself at the guilt phase of his trial. Bell also claimed he was mentally incompetent to stand trial. That claim was rejected.
Bell, who remains on death row, is appealing his conviction and sentence in federal court.
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Brumfield was found guilty and sentenced to death in the 2006 killing of 21-year-old Olive Garden employee and LSU pre-med student Aaron Arnold, whose dying moments were captured in a gut-wrenching 911 recording played for the jury.
"To say it was a challenging time for me as a judge would be an understatement," Hernandez said, describing the back-to-back death penalty cases.
The judge also acknowledged it took him awhile to recover from hearing the 911 audio. Arnold called 911 as he lay dying in the restaurant parking lot. He is heard groaning in pain, unable to speak while an operator pleads with him to tell her his location.
"I've seen a lot of gruesome photographs in my time that would turn people's stomachs, but anybody with a pulse had to be moved by the playing of that audio," he said.
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Three months after Brumfield's co-defendant, Tracy Young, pleaded guilty in 2011 in return for a life sentence, Brumfield — who was appealing his conviction and death sentence — was allowed to plead guilty in exchange for a life term. Trial testimony indicated Young, at Brumfield's direction, shot Arnold and fellow Olive Garden worker Dionne Grayson outside the Siegen Lane restaurant during a botched armed robbery.
Hernandez, a registered Republican, said he has never viewed himself as a politician.
He was nevertheless tossed into the political spotlight in 2014 when he sided with proponents of the new Common Core academic standards and lifted then-Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration's suspension of two state contracts needed for the Common Core tests. The judge cautioned at the time that the judicial branch should "rarely, if ever" enjoin the executive branch of government, but said the evidence he heard in the case left him with no other choice.
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Two years later, he handled Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry's challenge of Gov. John Bel Edwards' executive order prohibiting workplace discrimination of LGBT employees in state government agencies and by private companies contracting with the state.
Hernandez invalidated the executive order in 2016, ruling that Edwards exceeded the scope of his authority with his order protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. Regardless of what the governor intended, the judge ruled, the order creates new law or expands upon existing state law "as opposed to directing the faithful execution of the existing laws of this state."
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Hernandez, in his recent interview, reflected on his role as a judge and said it was always to be fair and impartial and not "create law that I think is right."
"I saw my role on the district court level as making the best decision I could based on the law and the facts," he said. "I'm going to do what's right. Doing the right thing is very seldom the popular thing."
Hernandez, who has sent his retirement papers to the Louisiana Supreme Court, has a message for his eventual successor.
"Whoever replaces me, I hope they show the respect for the office as much as I tried to. It belongs to the people."