Showdown looms over Orleans judge’s age _lowres

Frank Marullo

Frank Marullo, the longest-serving judge in Louisiana, has won the legal battle over whether he can run for re-election at age 74.

The Louisiana Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to take up the lawsuit challenging Marullo’s eligibility, letting lower court rulings in his favor stand.

And the decision quickly started reshaping the race for Marullo’s seat in Criminal District Court. Brigid Collins, a former prosecutor who qualified to run for the seat, said she would drop out of the election in view of what she described as Marullo’s insurmountable advantage.

“It is my belief that the overwhelming majority of Orleans Parish voters want Judge Marullo to remain on the bench,” Collins said. “I embrace their desire.”

The challenge to Marullo’s candidacy came from a group of voters backing another of his election rivals, former Orleans Parish prosecutor Graham Bosworth. They tried to have Marullo declared ineligible because he will turn 75 before he would take office again on Jan. 1; the mandatory retirement age for judges in Louisiana is 70.

But Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese ruled for Marullo earlier this month, deciding the retirement age applies only to whether a judge may take office, not whether a candidate can participate in the election. State law requires only that a candidate live in the district where he or she is running and have eight years of experience as a lawyer in order to qualify.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeal backed up Reese’s decision.

Still, that leaves open the question of whether Marullo can actually take office again in Criminal District Court should he win another six-year term.

His legal argument is complicated. When Marullo first took office 40 years ago, the age limit for judges was 75, which would bar him from office after his next birthday, on Dec. 31.

Just a few months after he first assumed his judgeship, a new Louisiana constitution set the age limit for judges at 70, but a later amendment allows them to serve out their term in office after they reach that age.

Marullo wants the best of both statutes — the 75-year age limit that existed in the old constitution, but also the provision for serving out the remainder of an existing term that came along with the new constitution.

Presumably, anyone wanting to dispute Marullo’s eligibility to serve would first have to wait and see if he wins re-election, then file another lawsuit.

Not every judge who has reviewed the eligibility standards agrees with Marullo’s logic.

In a dissenting opinion at the 4th Circuit, Judge Dennis Bagneris argued that there is no real distinction between the requirements for running in an election and those for holding the office sought.

“The purpose of eligibility requirements to run for office is to determine those with the requisite qualifications to serve in office,” he wrote. “Because Judge Marullo is unable to serve under present law, he is not eligible to run for re-election.”

Meanwhile, a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot would remove the age limit for judges. How its passage would affect Marullo’s situation is also a subject for debate.