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Judge Jessie LeBlanc

Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday called on state District Judge Jessie LeBlanc to resign, saying she had compromised her ability to serve when she used racial slurs to refer to two black officials in her district.

Edwards, a Democrat, was joined by the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and the state Democratic Party in calling for her immediate resignation. The Black Caucus, a group of black state legislators, said that if the group remains silent, it would be "complicit in such unjust and illegal behavior." The state and Baton Rouge chapters of the NAACP had called earlier for LeBlanc to quit.

LeBlanc's lawyer responded by saying the judge was being held to a different standard than others, and that a new "litmus test" would require all public officials to disclose their private conversations. She also said the governor should be concerned with the executive branch of government, not the judiciary.

The Advocate and television station WBRZ had reported last week that LeBlanc, who serves in the 23rd Judicial District that spans Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes, had used racist language in text messages when referring to an Assumption Parish deputy and a court employee, both of whom are African American.

The messages were from a conversation she had with a sheriff's deputy with whom she had an affair. Her lawyer, Jill Craft, initially denied using the language and claimed the messages had been altered.

LeBlanc said in an interview on WAFB-TV last weekend that she had used the word "n-----," but still maintained the text messages had been altered and didn't reflect her entire conversation. She also admitted to the affair, which she had previously neither confirmed nor denied.

The judge has not granted interviews to other media outlets since the WAFB interview and has not personally responded to requests for comment from The Advocate about the affair or the texts since mid-January. Her office has referred similar requests to Craft, as a staffer did again on Wednesday.

In a statement Wednesday morning, the governor said it was time for LeBlanc to step down.

"The admitted and repeated use of racial slurs by a judge who has taken an oath to administer justice fairly and impartially is wrong, period. There is never any circumstance or context in which such derogatory and degrading language is okay," Edwards said. "Sadly, inequities still exist in society and in our judicial system. Judge LeBlanc has compromised her ability to preside as a judge, and she has damaged the judiciary. She should resign. The people of the 23rd Judicial District and our state deserve better.”

The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus also said the remarks should cost LeBlanc her job.

"Too often we have seen justice dispensed in Louisiana based on race or ethnicity," said Sen. Jimmy Harris, the caucus chairman. "Such behavior will no longer be overlooked or tolerated in our great state." 

And the state Democratic Party, in a statement, said she could not continue to do her job after admitting she had used the racial slur multiple times.

"After this, it’s clear that she is unable to do her job and administer justice fairly," the party statement says. "An apology is not enough — Judge LeBlanc should resign immediately.”

LeBlanc, a two-term Republican who faces reelection in the fall, has said she doesn't plan to resign and stepping down her judgeship would forfeit a lucrative salary with benefits. 

The state Republican Party did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday. 

While her precise gross salary in 2019 wasn’t immediately available, the Legislature set state district judges’ annual salary at $153,485 starting July 1, 2019, up from nearly $152,000. Like other judges in her district, she has received a car allowance and reimbursement for conference travel, dues, fees and meals. In 2018, she took home $17,522 on top of her salary, the most of any of the five judges in the district, the court’s 2018 annual audit says.

Edwards lacks the authority to remove LeBlanc, an elected judge. The power to kick her off the bench, even temporarily for an investigation, rests with the Louisiana Supreme Court. Removal or other final discipline can only happen, however, after a recommendation from the state Judiciary Commission, which investigates judicial complaints.

Though the Supreme Court appointed a series of temporary judges while LeBlanc was on sick leave after news of the affair broke last month, the high court has maintained her authority as judge. Court officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Craft, LeBlanc's lawyer, immediately pushed back Wednesday against Edwards' call for the judge's resignation, saying that she has made her position about remaining in office and her contrition for the text messages clear.

"Her statements were made in a private conversation and in response to a clearly threatening situation," Craft said. "If that is now the litmus test for any public official, then every one of our public officials should be immediately held to the same standard, including private statements about race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, sex, religion." 

Always a zealous advocate on behalf of her clients, Craft also has been a political supporter of Edwards. She endorsed him last fall during a turbulent moment in his reelection bid, as a Republican group was attacking him for his hiring of Johnny Anderson, a top aide who resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal. Craft served as the attorney for Juanita Washington, the woman who accused Anderson of harassment, and when Washington began appearing in attack ads against Edwards, Craft backed up the governor and said she supported his reelection bid.

"Judge LeBlanc is a member of the judicial branch. With all due respect, the governor is part of the executive branch and his attention should be directed there," Craft said Wednesday. 

Craft called on The Advocate to ask Sheriff Leland Falcon, District Attorney Ricky Babin and Edwards if they had ever used racial slurs in their own private conversations.

The Advocate and others reported on the text messages after they were accompanied by an affidavit declaring their authenticity signed by former Assumption Parish Chief Deputy Bruce Prejean, with whom LeBlanc had the affair. Both Prejean and LeBlanc are married.

In LeBlanc's interview with WAFB, which aired Sunday, she discussed receiving an anonymous package, wrapped like a gift, with copies of Prejean's telephone records showing purported calls he made to the law clerk for another judge in the 23rd Judicial District.

The package, which she said scared her, arrived at the courthouse in Gonzales around December 2018 at Christmastime and, she said, prompted the series of messages where she used the word "n-----" in reference to the law clerk and the Assumption deputy.

The text messages show LeBlanc's cellphone number bringing up the package along with slur-laden speculation from the judge about who may have sent it. The messages attributed to her number also discuss the end of the relationship between the judge and Prejean and suspicions about a clerk having an affair with Prejean.

In the WAFB interview, LeBlanc also admitted to a far longer affair with Prejean than he has previously acknowledged to sheriff's deputies — to a period well before she became judge and while she was court administrator and a hearing officer. 

LeBlanc said the relationship went from 2008 to 2016; Sheriff Falcon has said Prejean told him the relationship lasted from around 2012 to 2016. LeBlanc became a judge in 2012. 

Prosecutors are seeking to have LeBlanc removed from more than 170 current criminal cases and an undisclosed number of juvenile cases in Assumption over the affair. Before her admission of the affair on television Sunday, LeBlanc had refused to remove herself from the cases and ordered hearings before other judges in the district.

LeBlanc told WAFB that Prejean had never testified in her court as a sheriff's deputy and that she never signed a warrant for him. "I don't believe any of this would warrant any new trials in Assumption Parish," she said.

Babin, the district attorney, has separately started notifying defendants in all three parishes of the judicial district about LeBlanc's text messages with racial slurs.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com