Baton Rouge City Court Judge-elect Johnell Matthews is "qualified to take office" despite turning 70 before last month's coronavirus-delayed runoff election and passing the mandatory retirement age for members of the judiciary, a state judge ruled Wednesday.

District Judge William Morvant rejected Whitney Higginbotham Greene's request to void the Aug. 15 election results and declare her the winner, noting that 70 is the mandatory retirement age for sitting judges and saying Matthews is not a sitting judge.

The case is expected to now move to the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge — where Greene's mother, Toni Higginbotham, is a sitting judge — and then to the Louisiana Supreme Court in New Orleans. Cases are randomly assigned to judges at the 1st Circuit, though Higginbotham would be expected to decline a spot on a panel hearing her daughter's case.

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

Greene, who was beaten by Matthews by a nearly 2-1 margin, filed a petition Aug. 24 alleging Matthews is "constitutionally barred" from taking office because she was elected after passing Louisiana's mandatory retirement age for judges in early June.

Greene, who is representing herself in the case, pressed that argument Wednesday during a Zoom hearing that Morvant conducted.

The judge pointed out that the City Court election had initially been set for the spring, when Matthews was 69. The contest was reset for July because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Matthews turned 70 before the new election day.

"If the election had gone as scheduled, Mrs. Matthews could have taken office immediately after the May 9 (runoff) election," he said. "Through no fault of her own, but for the pandemic, she would have taken office already."

Morvant cited two recent Louisiana Supreme Court decisions — one involving fellow 19th Judicial District Court Judge Richard "Chip" Moore and the other the state bar exam — in which the high court also took the pandemic into consideration in its reasoning.

Moore has been hospitalized due to the virus since early July and was unable to personally sign his qualifying papers by the July 24 deadline, but the Supreme Court ruled that the extraordinary pandemic should not knock Moore out of his reelection bid.

The high court allowed Moore's campaign chairman to sign the judge's papers so Moore could appear on the Nov. 3 ballot. The justices said Moore only had to sign them by Nov. 2, which he already has done. Moore has since been reelected after his two challengers dropped out.

In the bar exam matter, the Supreme Court announced in July that it will grant "diploma privilege" to some recent law school graduates, allowing them to practice law without taking the July 27 exam, which the court canceled due to logistical difficulties caused by coronavirus-driven restrictions.

In asking Morvant to dismiss Greene's petition, Matthews' attorney, Mary Olive Pierson, argued to the judge that the courts can't declare "a loser a winner." Pierson also said a "do-over" election isn't necessary because Matthews won fair and square.

Greene argued the election was unlawful because Matthews cannot serve because of her age.

"If she cannot serve, there's no reason for us to pay for another election," Greene told the judge, adding that she herself is ready to serve.

Greene's petition named the Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and Matthews as defendants.

"It's essential that we protect the sanctity of the election procedure. The voters spoke," Ray Wood, an attorney for Ardoin, argued to Morvant.

After Morvant had issued his ruling, Pierson told the judge that Matthews hasn't received her judicial commission but is entitled to it.

"I don't disagree," Morvant replied.

Pierson said afterward by telephone that she'll reach out to the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office to see to it that Matthews receives her commission.

The term for the City Court seat that Matthews won expires at the end of 2024.

Morvant had ruled last month in an age-related challenge to Matthews' candidacy that she could remain on the Aug. 15 runoff ballot. His ruling was upheld by the 1st Circuit and the state Supreme Court.

Greene's mother, Higginbotham, qualified in July to run for another term on the 1st Circuit but then withdrew from the race after the state Supreme Court ruled in the consolidated cases of 19th Judicial District Judge Janice Clark and New Orleans Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell that they're too old to run again. Clark is 72 and Cantrell is 73.

Clark and Higginbotham, 74, will leave office at the end of the year.

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