A pair of familiar faces are squaring off again in a Nov. 4 election for a state judgeship in St. Charles Parish, two years after they met in a tightly contested race for the same Division E seat on the 29th Judicial District Court in Hahnville.
Judge Michele Morel, of Luling, won that race, a 2012 special election to fill the seat left vacant after Judge Robert Chaisson was elected to Louisiana’s 5th Circuit Court of Appeal. She beat Destrehan lawyer Tim Marcel by 168 votes.
Marcel, 46, a Democrat, said he’s running this latest effort like the last one. “It’s a grass-roots campaign,” said Marcel, a Nicholls State University graduate who obtained his law degree from LSU. “I’m just going and meeting people and talking with them about my candidacy, talking with them about their concerns and finding out what their expectations are.”
Morel, 47, a Republican, said her performance in the past two years on the bench should bolster voters’ confidence that she is fair and hard-working, moves cases along and acts professionally. In turn, she’s anticipating a wider margin of victory. “Everybody’s pleased with the way I run the docket,” she said. “Everybody’s pleased with the way court’s been run. Everybody’s happy with my performance.”
Marcel started his law practice after finishing at LSU in 1996, handling “virtually everything that in the district court I will be called to preside over,” he said.
“In a small community, you handle a lot of different things,” he said, noting that he’s overseen both criminal and civil litigation and practiced family law. Marcel has also represented the Parish Council on several occasions in the past six years, including in a lawsuit filed by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu over the Parish Council’s nomination of a representative on the New Orleans Aviation Board.
Two years ago, Marcel’s own legal issues at times became a focus of the race. While he was enrolled in college and later in law school, he was arrested three times on drunken driving charges. In one case, he completed a court diversion program; in another, he was not convicted; and in the third, he was convicted.
Marcel addressed the issue in a letter to residents during his first campaign, describing it as “a challenging part” of his life. “I accepted my disease of alcoholism and sought treatment so that I would be able to manage my illness and survive,” he wrote.
He said he has now been sober for 17 years. He’s spent time volunteering with alcohol-abuse groups, including lawyers who are battling addiction of their own, he said.
“I’m a better person because of that experience,” he said. “I dealt with it, and I learned a lot about myself in that process.”
In an interview, Marcel largely avoided discussing his opponent by name, referring to her repeatedly as “the other candidate.”
“Our parish is not unlike any other parish,” he said. “With respect to the legal system, I think we’re facing similar issues across the state, if not nationally, one being offenders with chronic mental illness.”
That could become a bigger challenge, he said, unless more is done to ensure that nonviolent criminal offenders are able to get necessary treatment.
From his own perspective, Marcel said, he’s developed “a pretty good handle on what resources are out there, and who provides them and who can get those folks with chronic mental illness to treatment and supervise it.”
Morel practiced law for about 18 years before winning the 2012 election, including 16 years as a prosecutor, partly in Jefferson Parish and surrounding areas. She also ran a private practice.
She said it hasn’t been much of a challenge moving from one side of the bench to the other. She said she has presided over more than 6,000 cases, most of which were criminal cases. “It’s not difficult at all. It’s just a matter of working hard,” she said.
Asked what sets her apart from her opponent in the race, Morel spoke mostly about her work so far. “I have integrity. I have the ethics. I have a clean criminal background. I am a family person. I have judicial integrity. I do not legislate from the bench. I respect people in the court,” she said.
Still, in meeting with voters during the campaign, Morel said some residents have expressed concern about Marcel’s decade-old legal issues. “Most definitely,” she said. “It pretty much disgusts people.”
Last year, Morel drew ire from the state Attorney General’s Office, which accused her of questioning a 10-year-old girl’s claims of being raped by a relative. Prosecutors in the case filed a motion requesting that the trial be reassigned because of Morel’s self-described “rant and rave” in court, highlighted by comments she made in a pretrial hearing in which she asked a deputy to remove the girl from the courtroom and berated the child’s mother and a victims’ advocate for bringing her to court.
Morel declined to comment on the incident last week.
Also potentially lingering over the election is a federal investigation into alleged misconduct by her father, former longtime St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel, suggesting that he offered legal breaks to one or more women in exchange for sexual favors.
In an interview, Michele Morel dismissed that notion. “That’s just what it is: ongoing rumors,” she said.
She said her track record as a state judge speaks for itself. She’s an active community volunteer, she said, attending regular luncheons with senior citizens to discuss legal issues or invite them to stop by and observe her courtroom, or spending time with students to teach them about the law or warn them of the hazards of texting while driving, bullying, drinking alcohol, taking drugs or other negative influences.