A race for a St. John the Baptist Parish judgeship has proved to be a heated one, with an anonymous attack ad and residency challenges.
Three candidates are vying for the Division B seat in the 40th Judicial District Court, which oversees civil, criminal, traffic, juvenile and family cases.
A special election to fill the seat will be held Nov. 8. Voters will replace Judge Mary Hotard Becnel, who is retiring in December after 23 years on the bench.
The three candidates are Nghana Lewis Gauff, a defense attorney and associate professor at Tulane University; Jeff Perilloux, an assistant district attorney and legal counsel to the parish; and Rob Snyder Jr., the parish's 3rd District justice of the peace.
Gauff, a 44-year-old attorney based in LaPlace, has her own firm that covers criminal, civil rights, employment discrimination, Social Security and other types of law. She also teaches English and black studies at Tulane.
She has never before run for office but called this race "a calling." If elected, she said, she'd focus on youth outreach and new re-entry programs for people leaving prison.
"To address the tremendous problem Louisiana has with recidivism, we need to do much more work within the frame of standing up and sustaining re-entry," she said.
Perilloux, 49, has practiced law in St. John Parish since 1993. He has been an assistant district attorney for 12 years.
Perilloux, who also has never before run for office, said he, too, would support "progressive" re-entry programming but that he would not be afraid to impose "harsh sentences" on those who commit violent crimes.
“The safety of our citizens and the quality of life in the parish is incredibly important,” he said. “Judges do play a role in that.”
This race is the second time Snyder, 43, has run for judge in St. John. He ran against Becnel in 2014.
Snyder said he has more than 16 years of experience as a lawyer and has tried civil and criminal cases through the appeals process.
He also is a former law enforcement officer and said his "impeccable record" makes him stand out from the other candidates.
"If I am elected, you will have your day in court, will be treated with dignity and respect and will be treated only based on the law and the evidence presented," Snyder said.
Neither Gauff nor Perilloux listed a party affiliation when they qualified. Snyder qualified as a Democrat.
All three were publicly scrutinized in various ways after they qualified in July.
Some St. John voters took to social media in October to complain about an anonymous attack piece circulated on Snyder. The piece, which was mailed within the parish, reportedly brought up an alleged past of alcohol abuse.
The ad was then criticized by Perilloux, who took to his public Facebook page to condemn the use of negative campaign tactics, calling them "ridiculous" and "unnecessary."
Perilloux took the opportunity to acknowledge his own past problems with alcohol. In 2010, he made headlines for threatening a State Police trooper after being pulled over for drunk driving on U.S. 51.
After the incident happened, he was booked on DWI and two counts of public intimidation, according to multiple reports. The drunk driving charge was expunged, and Perilloux was hired as an attorney for the Parish Council.
"Neither I nor my campaign condones this type of negative, personal and political tactics," Perilloux wrote on his campaign's Facebook page. "As someone who has openly acknowledged past personal alcohol issues, I also feel it completely inappropriate that such an issue would be used against Mr. Snyder."
Snyder, meantime, sought to disqualify his opponents by challenging their residencies. According to the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office, judicial candidates must have been domiciled in the parish for one year before election.
After a district court found there were no residency issues because all the candidates lived in the parish, Snyder appealed to the state 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court's decision.
Whoever wins will serve out the remainder of Becnel's term, which ends in 2021.
If a runoff is needed, it will be Dec. 10.