With several high-powered candidates  sporting prominent family names vying to fill a vacant Baton Rouge City Court seat, it's no wonder one of the lesser-known hopefuls calls it a "David versus Goliath" contest.

The strong field includes, in alphabetical order, assistant state Attorney General Whitney Higginbotham Greene, East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant District Attorney Chris Hester, and lawyers Carson Marcantel, Johnell Matthews, Janice Miller and Judy Moore Vendetto.

The special election is Oct. 14, with any runoff being held Nov. 18. Early voting runs Saturday through Oct. 7.

In interviews, the candidates highlighted their own legal experience rather than their family names or connections.

Greene, 46, is the daughter of state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Toni Higginbotham and sister of 19th Judicial District Judge Beau Higginbotham, But she stressed it is her name printed on the ballot.

"You shouldn't be voting for a family," she said.

Hester, at 34 the youngest of the six candidates, is the son of former 19th Judicial District Judge Bob Hester but touted his nearly eight years as a prosecutor.

Marcantel, 55, is a former East Baton Rouge Parish assistant district attorney who pointed to his 21 years in the private practice of law.

Matthews, the senior City Court candidate at 67, is the wife of former East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilman Johnnie Matthews and said she has practiced law with him for 16 years.

Miller, 59, has been a registered nurse for nearly four decades and has been a lawyer for 21 years. She served 10 years as an administrative law judge for the state, but said she has no connections or associations.

"I'm David versus Goliath," she said.

Vendetto, 48, is the sister of East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III and lawyer Steven Moore. She served as law clerk for 19th Judicial District Judge Mike Erwin for 21 years and said the experience she gained in his courtroom is invaluable.

Vendetto, Marcantel, Hester and Greene are Republicans. Miller and Matthews are Democrats.

The Division E special election is being held to fill the unexpired term of longtime City Court Judge Suzan Ponder, who retired June 30. Her term does not expire until the end of 2018.

Division E is a sub-district predominantly in south Baton Rouge within the city limits. It includes the Jefferson Highway and Perkins and Highland road corridors, and part of the sub-district stretches to Choctaw Drive. Sherwood Forest also is included in the sub-district. 

Greene ran for a new at-large City Court seat in 2015, but Tarvald Smith won that election.

Greene, who is on leave while she campaigns, wants to use her eight years as an assistant attorney general as a springboard to the City Court bench, where she believes she could have a positive impact on the lives of those who would appear before her.

"This is me wanting to go in and touch people. I feel like I could be very effective there," she said.

Greene refers to City Court as an "entry-level court" because for many it is their first experience with a court. She sees early intervention as a key.

"You have to be able to say, `What would be the best outcomes here?'" Greene said.

Hester pointed to his prosecutorial experience and said he offers "real, direct experience that will absolutely transfer to City Court."

"I certainly think the District Court experience transfers over there," he said.

Hester also said he would bring his youthful energy to the City Court bench and would be "up for the challenge" of holding night court or possibly weekend court if that would be beneficial.

He said City Court and Juvenile Court are on the "front end" of the criminal justice system.

"A lot of time it starts with misdemeanors," Hester said of criminal behavior that often escalates to more serious crimes.

Marcantel said City Court has changed and is no longer your grandfather's court, noting that City Court judges conduct criminal trials that can send those convicted to Parish Prison for up to six months. Civil trials can lead to judgments of up to $35,000.

"City Court is no longer a small claims court or a people's court," he said. "That's why we need a highly experienced courtroom attorney to serve on that important bench. What we need is a highly skilled, competent courtroom lawyer as judge."

Marcantel, who stressed he's not afraid of hard work, said he tried more than 90 criminal cases in the early- to mid-90s under then-District Attorney Doug Moreau and has been involved in another 40 trials in his private practice.

"There are no juries in City Court, so having an experienced judge matters," he added. "I believe I'd be ready from day one."

Vendetto feels the 21 years she spent as Erwin's law clerk separates her from the rest of the field.

"I don't have to change hats," she said, adding that law clerks deal with cases all the way from arrest warrants and setting of bail to sentencing and post-conviction appeals.

"My unique experience in jury trials, criminal cases and the day-to-day management of a court docket has prepared me for City Court judge," she added.

Vendetto said she doesn't think her former low-profile, behind-the-scene job, which kept her name out of the news media, will adversely affect her candidacy.

"My name was never in the paper for a negative, either," she said.

Vendetto said she would love to be able to help City Court Judge Laura Prosser with the Domestic Violence Court she handles.

"Let's try to nip it in City Court," she said of domestic violence. "It helps the victims and the defendants."

Matthews, in addition to her legal experience, spent 20 years working in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System as a teacher, foreign language supervisor and assistant principal.

"That's part of who I am. Twenty years in the school system. I have 20 years of leadership skills," she said. "My work experience really distinguishes me."

Matthews said she wants to make City Court more efficient and public friendly, as well as expand the sobriety court. She said wants to focus on misdemeanor drug offenses.

"Try to do something to help young men and women to kick the habit before it really becomes an issue," she said.

Miller said she is running for the citizens of Baton Rouge, not the office, and added that her experience gives her the tools needed by a City Court judge.

"I feel like I'm prepared to hit the ground running," she said.

Miller stressed that she brings no affiliations or associations into the race and added, "I have my own mind."

Miller, whose medical experience includes time spent as a psychiatric nurse, said her dream is to establish a mental health court at City Court. The mentally ill need to be treated, not locked up, she said.

A mental health court is not a new concept, Miller said, noting that other states have them.

"We don't have to reinvent the wheel," she said.


Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.