The race for an open seat on the Orleans Parish Civil District Court bench features three women from varying legal backgrounds, and a flurry of late campaign hits.

Two of the candidates, Suzanne "Suzy" Montero and Rachael Johnson, are making their first runs at public office. The third, Marie Williams, has become a perennial candidate for judicial seats in New Orleans, casting herself as an outsider fighting a corrupt system.

Johnson, who is the daughter of Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, recently upped the stakes with a series of mailers and TV ads hammering both of her opponents — Montero over an IRS tax lien, and Williams over her arrest last year on an attachment for failing to show up at a divorce proceeding.

Montero has cast Johnson as an inexperienced lawyer with a scant trial record who is benefiting, through endorsements, from her mother's standing in legal circles.

The election is Saturday for a seat left vacant when Judge Regina Bartholomew-Woods won a spot on the appeals court bench last fall. A runoff, if necessary, would be April 29.

Johnson

Johnson, 40, has touted her master's degree and early career in social work in Atlanta, along with a 12-year legal career that included a stint as an assistant city attorney in Riviera Beach, Florida.

She was admitted to the Louisiana bar two months after Hurricane Katrina hit the city and opted to take a job in Florida, she said, rather than compete with a pool of out-of-work veteran lawyers in her native New Orleans.

She returned to the city in 2012 to work as an attorney for The Hartford insurance company.

Her background in social work "is a perfect foundation for the legal work that I've done and want to do. To me it's one of the best qualifications I have," she said.

"You're not an advocate when you get to the bench, so (being) the best trial attorney is great, but that's not the best quality" for a judge, she said.

After graduating from Tulane law school, Johnson worked for then-Civil District Judge Nadine Ramsey, now a city councilwoman.

Johnson hasn't shied away from discussing her powerful mother, whom she describes as a mentor who "raised me to love and respect the law." But she insists that she wants voters to weigh her on her own merit.

Johnson, whose opponents have described her attack ads as blatantly misleading, also addressed her own blemish — the 2012 foreclosure of a condominium she owned in Florida, after her move back to New Orleans.

She said she fell victim to a housing bubble that struck hard in Florida, and that the bank refused a series of short sales she had lined up with buyers.

"It got to the point where I just had to stop paying," she said. "I agonized over it for a long time, because I'm about fulfilling my commitments."

Montero

On the campaign trail, Montero, 54, has underscored her nearly 25 years as a civil attorney in New Orleans, where her parents — Wilson and Joan Montero — were both attorneys.

An LSU law school graduate, Montero has worked mostly on the plaintiff's side, with the Martzell and Bickford firm and the law firm of Warren "Chip" Forstall. She said she's handled 22 trials in Civil District Court.

Among her plans should she win, Montero said, is to improve access to the court for Spanish-speaking and Vietnamese residents.

The civil courthouse is "my home," she said. "I have dedicated every day of the 25 years of practice that I've had in Orleans Parish. I've never moved away. I love our city. I love the study and the practice of law." 

Montero acknowledged that, like Johnson, her pedigree comes in part from her lawyer parents, but she insisted the difference is her greater experience.

"We are Southerners, which means we all ascribe to the idea that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," she said. "But we also ascribe to the idea the apple needs to stay on the tree long enough to be ripened."

That comment came shortly after Johnson began running attack ads citing the $15,000 lien that the IRS placed over a tax debt that Montero had contested. Montero provided documents and a copy of a cashed check that show she paid off the debt within a week of the lien notice.

Montero, meanwhile, agreed at a court hearing Thursday to halt her ads claiming that Johnson has never tried a case in Civil District Court and has never been the lead trial attorney anywhere.

Williams

Williams, who is making at least her sixth bid for public office, also was the subject of an attack from Johnson, over her September arrest on a Jefferson Parish attachment.

Williams, 45, claims she was never served a notice to appear and that the allegation from Johnson's campaign — that she was booked for "violating a court order stemming from an accusation of assault" — is false. She has vowed to sue Johnson after the race.

A Loyola law school graduate, Williams cites a history of legal work that includes representing death row inmates and the under-served, as well as serving as an administrative law judge.

She has worked with the Pro Bono Project and former Mayor Marc Morial's law office, though it appears she has done little legal advocacy in recent years.

Williams says her experience in domestic law surpasses that of her opponents, noting that the winner will preside, for perhaps a year, over a family law docket.

Williams has cast her candidacy as a vote for the forgotten. She has likened herself to civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

"There's so many people, they want to destroy you and shut you up," she said. "A lot of people in the city feel like they have no voice. I feel like I'm that voice for the people."

Williams has had her share of drama on the campaign trail in recent years.

In 2014, she secretly recorded her opponent, then-Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo, during a lunch meeting. While discussing her possible exit from that race, Marullo was heard pledging to support Williams for a magistrate commissioner's post. She wound up taking 24 percent of the vote in that race, finishing second of three candidates.

Williams tried to run for the same seat last year after Marullo retired. But Civil District Judge Paula Brown disqualified her for failing to file income tax returns. Williams claimed she left the tax preparation to her now ex-husband, Peter Brigandi, during their 14-year marriage, and was being unfairly punished for his failure to file. She said she has since straightened out the tax issues.


Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.