West bank voters will have a clear choice Saturday when they decide who will take the bench in Division E of 24th Judicial District Court, which handles criminal and civil cases in Jefferson Parish.
Christy Howley, a Democrat, has practiced primarily civil law during her career, along with some criminal work. Frank Brindisi, a Republican, is a career prosecutor for the state Attorney General's Office and Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office who has done some civil law on the side.
Brindisi lives in Gretna, Howley in Harvey.
The Division E seat they are seeking will be decided by voters in Gretna, Harvey and portions of Marrero and Westwego, along with the southern reaches of the parish.
The victor will replace John Molaison, who was elected to the state 5th Circuit Court of Appeal last year, with an appointed judge serving ad hoc in the 24th District Court seat since then. The term will end in 2020.
The candidates differ over whose background makes them better suited for the job, and whether the other is lacking in relevant experience.
Brindisi said Howley has no experience with criminal jury trials and that he is the only candidate of the two who has the background to preside over important criminal trials.
Howley said Brindisi has emphasized a specific type of experience during the campaign because it fits his background. She said she has decades of criminal defense experience, just not jury trials, and that much of her civil work has involved jury trials. She said about two-thirds of the cases in the 24th JDC are civil cases and that she has not been able to find a single civil jury trial that Brindisi has handled in Jefferson Parish.
“I’m the only candidate with the breadth of civil cases to handle that docket,” she said.
As for any insinuation that she would be soft on crime, Howley said her father is a 55-year veteran of the New Orleans Police Department, although “I don’t come with a bias of being a lifetime prosecutor.”
Brindisi has worked as a prosecutor for three decades, around the state for the Attorney General’s Office and in Orleans and Jefferson parishes under district attorneys Harry and Paul Connick, respectively.
But he said he would work to protect the rights of defendants and ensure law enforcement agencies make proper arrests and investigate crimes as they’re supposed to. He said he wants to make the community safer but not at the expense of the rights of the accused.
Asked how a career prosecutor could take the bench with a balanced judicial philosophy, Brindisi cited his experience going up against able public defenders and private defense attorneys.
He said his time working as a prosecutor has primed him for continued public service.
Brindisi said he has practiced law in most, if not all, of Louisiana's parishes, and that “if I had to pick a court system in the entire state that should be the model for court systems, I’d say it would be Jefferson Parish.”
Brindisi said he has maintained a civil practice out of his home for 25 years, handling personal injury cases, domestic disputes, successions and other cases that he said number in the hundreds.
Howley has been an attorney for 23 years and started Bowman & Howley, a general civil and criminal practice, in Gretna 17 years ago. She specializes in family law, but with experience in personal injuries, successions, insurance law and criminal representation, she said.
She teaches professionalism courses for law students for the Louisiana Bar Association and said she’d run a fair, impartial and hard-working courtroom.
Howley said she is running because there are ways to improve the court system in Jefferson Parish, including the court’s approach to domestic cases. “I got to a point where I thought the only way to fix things is to do it from the inside,” she said.
She said the 24th JDC, which now has hearing officers to handle domestic cases, should once again have judges dedicated to handling the growing number of domestic and family law cases, as it did a few decades ago.
Howley said family law is distinct enough that having judges dedicated only to it would allow for more consistent rulings. “It is a very contentious, difficult area of law to practice,” she said.
Howley also said the court could do a better job of accommodating litigants who represent themselves and should keep the pro bono desk open more hours during the week.
Based on campaign finance contributions, Brindisi has more support from the political establishment and high-profile attorneys, having taken in and spent more money.