State District Judge Beau Higginbotham views his judicial race with lawyer Joe Prokop as a chance to return to his south Baton Rouge roots.

When 19th Judicial District Court Judge Kay Bates announced in 2014 that she would retire at the end of that year, Higginbotham — an East Baton Rouge Parish assistant district attorney at the time — ran for the vacant seat and was narrowly elected by voters in the northern part of the parish.

The 15-judge 19th JDC is comprised of three subdistricts with five judges elected from each. Candidates don't have to live in the subdistrict in which they run.

Higginbotham defeated Southern University Law Center professor Cleveland Coon in a December 2014 runoff, receiving 52 percent of the vote to Coon's 48 percent.

Higginbotham's term doesn't expire until the end of 2020, but when 19th JDC Judge Lou Daniel retired at the end of March from a subdistrict in southern East Baton Rouge where Higginbotham lives, the 45-year-old Republican decided to seek that seat in this fall's election.

"I'm born and raised in south Baton Rouge. I want to be able to vote for myself," Higginbotham, the son of state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Toni Higginbotham and former 19th JDC Judge Leo Higginbotham, said during a recent interview in his 19th JDC office. 

Higginbotham believes that based on his record and qualifications he could win re-election next year to his seat in the northern subdistrict that has an equal number of white and black registered voters, but he acknowledged that "politics and elections are about numbers."

The subdistrict that will choose Daniel's successor includes registered voters who are 71 percent white, 22 percent black and 7 percent other.

"I'm enjoying what I'm doing. I need to take the necessary steps to continue doing what I've been doing," Higginbotham said. "It was a perfect transition for me to come back down to where I was born and raised."

Prokop, a 62-year-old lifelong Democrat who recently switched his party affiliation to Republican, is vowing to not accept any campaign contributions from lawyers who would appear before him if he's elected.

"A judge must be impartial. Accepting campaign contributions from attorneys who practice before me can create the appearance of impropriety," he said. "The people of Louisiana deserve a transparent and independent judiciary and that's what I'll deliver."

Prokop, who has been a lawyer for almost 30 years, said he's not insinuating that contributions from attorneys affect judges, but added "it just looks bad."

"I just think it looks terrible. It just to me looks horrible," he said. "Everybody's going to be on an even footing."

Early voting for the Oct. 12 election is Sept. 28 through Oct. 5, excluding Sunday, Sept. 29.

Daniel's term wasn't set to expire until the end of next year, so this fall's election is for the remainder of that term. An election for a full six-year term will be held next fall.

Higginbotham, who was a prosecutor for 11 years before his election to the bench, said his courtroom experience means "there's no learning curve for me."

"My entire legal career has been devoted to the justice system," he said. "I know what it takes to run a docket. I'm confident the people will hire me again."

Higginbotham said his office door is open weekdays at 7:30 in the morning for lawyers to discuss their cases with him.

"Nobody likes a judge who's not prepared," he stressed.

If Higginbotham beats Prokop, a special election will have to be called to fill the remainder of his current seat that he won in 2014.

Prokop, who served for 10 years as the mental health liaison officer for the 19th JDC, has largely a civil practice that focuses on issues affecting the elderly and mentally ill.

"If I have learned anything in my nearly 30 years of practice, it is that hard work, constant learning and patience are vital, whether counseling a grieving family, assisting the family of a mentally ill person with navigating the governmental regulations or litigating a complex legal matter in the courts of East Baton Rouge Parish," he said.

"As a judge, I'll draw upon this experience to make sure that everyone has a full and fair hearing in my courtroom, and that my decisions are based on existing law," he added.

Prokop explained his recent party affiliation change, saying when he registered to vote as an 18-year-old there was virtually no Republican Party in Louisiana. Under the old state Constitution a person had to register as a Democrat if he or she wanted to vote in meaningful primaries. Prokop said he didn't change his registration to Republican when a new Constitution came into being because he could vote for the candidate of his choice under the open primary system, regardless of party affiliation.

He said he would prefer that judges run as "no party" because in his view political parties should have nothing to do with the judicial system.

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