A Baton Rouge City Court judge who spent nine years as a prosecutor and two local attorneys with nearly three decades of civil law experience apiece are vying for a spot on the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.

Judge Chris Hester, 37, Melanie Newkome Jones, 57, and Johanna R. Landreneau, 54, are competing for the seat that retiring Circuit Judge Toni Higginbotham, 74, will relinquish at the end of the year.

The election is Nov. 3.

Higginbotham, a Republican and former East Baton Rouge Parish Family Court judge, has held the seat -- which covers virtually all of East Baton Rouge Parish -- since 2010.

Hester and Landreneau are Republicans; Jones is a Democrat.

Hester, son of the late state District Judge Bob Hester, graduated from law school in 2008 and has served on City Court since January 2019. He said his judicial experience, combined with his service as an East Baton Rouge Parish assistant district attorney that was preceded by a short stint as civil lawyer, distinguishes him from his opponents.

"I'm the only candidate with judicial experience in this race," he said. "Courtroom experience and trial experience are of the utmost importance. I've spent my career in the courtroom. Experience is what matters, not your age."

Jones has been a lawyer since 1991 and has a general civil practice, with an emphasis in family-related issues. She said she's one of nine board-certified family law specialists in Baton Rouge.

"My career has been about standing up to help families, children and small businesses, but my commitment to pro bono work for the poor and the indigent has been the part of my career I find most rewarding," Jones said.

"The experience of helping people who really need help will serve me well on the Court of Appeal," she added.

Landreneau, who earned her law license in 1993, said her father, who passed away Sept. 9, began taking her to his law office when she was just 6 years old.

"I fell in love with the law office. I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer at 6 years old," she said.

Landreneau, who practiced law with her father for a decade, said she handles business law, insurance defense, construction litigation and successions in her broad civil practice and has a strong appellate practice.

"I've always wanted to run for judge. It's important to have judges who will apply the law as written and not legislate from the bench," she said.

Hester stressed the importance of having an experienced judge serving as an appellate court judge — "one who has sat on the bench and handled matters as a practicing attorney."

"The stakes are simply too high at this level of our judicial system. Judges need to be proven, fair and trustworthy," he said.

Hester also also feels that having appeals court judges with criminal law experience "is particularly relevant and needed on the First Circuit."

While the 1st Circuit typically decides cases with panels of three or five judges, Hester noted that all trials at City Court are bench trials, rather than jury trials.

"A bench trial means the decision is all on me," he said. "It's an obligation I take very seriously."

"Bringing this perspective to the Court of Appeal, I can appreciate the gravity of the decisions that are being made and know that at the root of every case is an individual or business that my decision will impact," he said.

Jones believes she has the most trial and appellate experience in the race, and also feels Higginbotham's Family Court background was vital to the 1st Circuit.

"I believe there should be someone with experience in family (law)," she said.

Jones said Higginbotham's 2nd District, Subdistrict 1, Division A seat is 46% Democrat, 32% Republican and 25% other in terms of registered voters. But she said party affiliation "really has nothing to do with the 1st Circuit."

Landreneau has taken a leave of absence during the campaign as chief operating officer of the nonprofit HOPE Ministries of Baton Rouge, which has a food pantry and also focuses on workforce development.

"We need now more than ever strong leaders to step up and serve as leaders in our community. That's an area I'm very good at," said Landreneau, who is making her first run for public office.

Early voting for the election is scheduled Oct. 16-27, excluding Oct. 18 and 25, which are Sundays.

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