— If judges make decisions based on laws, how do different judges make different decisions?
The basic concept of our legal system is that the law when applied to similar facts should produce the same or substantially similar result. The “same result” is easy to explain and understand. The “substantially similar result” is a bit trickier and I can best describe it in terms of a misdemeanor case:
Let’s say we have two 1st time offenders convicted of theft under $500.00, which is punishable by a fine up to $500 and/or six (6) months in jail.
John Q. Smith (25), a high school graduate, employed for four years at the local salt mine, is convicted of theft under $500.00 for stealing a $300.00 smart phone from Wal-Mart. He was caught on camera, arrested in the parking lot and immediately admitted to stealing the phone. John had never been arrested or accused of a crime prior to this incident.
David Q. Roy (25), a high school graduate, employed for six years at the local chemical plant, is arrested, admits to stealing $400.00 from his elderly grandmother and is subsequently convicted of theft under $500.00. Before this, David had been arrested four times for stealing several hundred dollars from other elderly family members, but hasn’t been convicted because those family members requested the DA drop the charges.
Judge A gives John a $100 fine & 20 hours of community service & David receives a $100.00 fine, ten (10) days in jail, twenty (20) days in jail, suspended, and six (6) months of unsupervised probation.
What if Judge B says that he would have given both of them the same $100 fine and 20 hours of community service despite the different facts of each case?
What if Judge C says that she would have given both of them a fine of $500?
Do you believe that a judge would be wrong to give both the same consequence? Do the facts of David’s case warrant a stiffer penalty? Do you believe that a judge does not or should not have the discretion to give David a harsher punishment considering both are convicted of the same crime?
In short, the application of the same law can lead to different outcomes when the facts are similar and/or where the judge exercises his/her discretion in fashioning sentences. Now, I would have a different take on things if either judge received a confession and competent, independent evidence showing that John and David committed theft and one was convicted and one wasn’t. That is a totally different scenario.
Does it simply come down to the widest variety of experience when voting for a quality judge?
No, it comes down to assessing whether an individual has pertinent, relevant experience. We are general jurisdiction judges, which means that each of the eight (8) judges in the 16th JDC has to preside over a wide variety of cases...divorces, adoptions, personal injury cases, criminal cases, etc. It stands to reason that a lawyer who has practiced in a variety of these areas should be better equipped to preside over such cases than one who has not. That is one reason that the legislature determined that a lawyer needs at least eight years of practice before becoming a district court judge. It is, however, more complex than just having represented one or two clients in a divorce or in a personal injury case that settled before trial over the course of three, five, or eight years. A lawyer who has gone through the process of interviewing and selecting jurors and then presenting his/her case before a jury: calling witnesses, cross examining the opponent’s witnesses, introducing evidence, making opening and closing arguments will have an advantage, experience wise, when called to preside over jury trials as a judge. As an assistant district attorney, I had the opportunity to take numerous, serious felony cases from arraignment through the trial and sentencing phases.
Better than my experience as a private lawyer or as a prosecutor is the fact that I have garnered twelve (12) years of actual judicial experience. I now have significant experience sitting as the trier of fact in misdemeanor criminal cases where the defendant normally does not have a right to a jury trial. The same goes for juvenile cases where the judge has to listen to the evidence presented by the prosecutor and defense counsel in order to decide guilt or innocence. Further, in both instances, the judge is the one responsible for fashioning appropriate sentences. Additionally, I, having presided over numerous civil and criminal jury trials, including a capital case where the death penalty was on the table, now have significant experience in managing cases where a jury, not the judge, is the trier of fact. One major difference between lawyers and judges during jury selection is that a lawyer comes to jury selection trying to root out jurors who he/she determines will not be sympathetic to their cause. The judge’s job is to ensure that each potential juror is first qualified according to the law to serve and second, to try his/her best to determine whether an individual juror’s beliefs, thought processes and life experiences will affect the juror’s ability to be impartial or to uphold the law. That is what happens after the judge and staff has performed the administrative side of jury selection...notifying jurors, excusing jurors, providing information, managing the court staff, etc.
— Is the 16th Judicial District Court bogged down with cases? If so, how would you address this?
Not necessarily, though there is always room for improvement, I think that we have eight hardworking judges who try to get cases resolved. It is true, however, that we have more cases than judges and hours in a day. With the continued rate of poverty, drug use and disintegration of strong family units, our criminal and family cases just keep coming. When you resolve one, there are two or three or five more ready to fill that empty space. Do I think that is the case just in the 16th JDC? No, that is very much similar to everywhere else in America.
With certainty, I can speak for Division H when saying that we use every available working hour to ensure that everyone who comes to court seeking justice has an expeditious opportunity to access it. There are days when we have 50-100 misdemeanor cases set for trial requiring us to work until 10 pm and return the next day and stay until 7 pm to finish. I stay and that means everyone else necessary to the process...clerks, bailiffs, lawyers, etc., stay, as well. The only way to resolve cases, criminal cases in particular, is to work them, which demands preparation and requires, me, as the judge to hold all of the professionals accountable. That means ensuring prosecutors hand over discovery to defense counsel in a timely manner. That public defenders and private defense counsel, too, go to the jails to meet with their clients who can’t come to meet them at the office. It means that law enforcement cannot repeatedly hold up the process by failing to submit reports, crime lab results, or other evidence to the prosecutors and in turn, defense counsel, and where such occurs, appropriate sanctions are assessed.
Additionally, part of my job as the judge is to serve as a mediator, without crossing ethical lines, between the parties. There are various opportunities through pre-trial conferences, motions, sentencing where the neutral voice of the judge can bring about a just and speedy resolution to cases in every arena. If the State has a claim against someone, then it has a duty to present that claim as expeditiously as justice necessitates and give that person their day in court.
— If applicable, are there any specific qualifications that you have to serve in a minority district?
Being a real student of the law, should be evident before you take the bench because you have to be ready when you get there. Yes, we grow as judges as the years pass, but if the foundation is not there, you are on sinking sand and have the potential to do great harm to our system of justice. Commitment to unbiased justice, personal integrity should be evident when you take the bench. The judgeships of Division G and H, sometimes referred to as “the black seats” or “the African American seats”, are seats of general jurisdiction for the ENTIRE 16th JDC. We don’t make decisions that impact only the residents of Judicial District 161, our decisions affect any resident of Iberia, St. Mary, or St. Martin parishes who comes to the court house seeking justice. Although, a product of District 161, having been born and raised in the west end of New Iberia, I have been immersed in every segment of this society. I attended Mt. Carmel Academy, New Iberia Senior High, graduated from ULL at Lafayette (formerly USL) and Southern University Law Center, and then returned home to practice law in the private arena before serving as an assistant prosecutor in the New Iberia office of the 16th JDC District Attorney’s office. I was a lifeguard for many years at our community pools, a former director of the Chamber of Commerce here in New Iberia and Jeanerette, a member of the inaugural class of “Leadership Iberia”, a basketball coach for the Catholic High middle school girls’ team. Through my church, Lighthouse Missionary Baptist Church (NI & Fr.) and my former place of worship, St. Edward’s Catholic Church, I have been in service across every corner of the three parishes of the 16th JDC. People know me apart from my role as a judge here. They know me from being an active participant in the growth and positive well-being of our community.
These two seats were created in 1993 by the Louisiana legislature. Before that, an African American had never been elected to serve as a district court judge. Until my election to the bench in 2002, after the untimely passing of the Honorable Carl Williams, only one female, the Honorable Anne L. Simon (ret.), had ever held the position here in the 16th JDC. Judge Simon, although we had very different personalities, became my mentor as we both had the same work ethic, passion for the law and the desire to do the best job possible. I am keenly aware of the importance of my perspective as an African American female being counted at the table of decision makers. It is vital to the success of our community that various voices are included, but that does not mean that I speak only for African Americans or only for women or only for those who are not rich. Although I never imagined being elected judge, had never desired it, when the time came for someone to step up and take the reins, after much prayer and direction from my Holy Father, I saw clearly that my life before had prepared me well for the journey. Nothing has changed since the morning after making the decision to run in 2002. I understand that I am a leader in the African American community, as well, as the community at large...a task I do not take lightly or for granted, not for a single moment of any day.
— It has been suggested some cases can take longer because of the rotation of district judges from Iberia to St. Martin to St. Mary parishes. If you believe this to be true, can you offer a better way to assure people who are accused of crime can have their case before the court in an expedient manner?
I do not believe this to be true, once again, I must express that I believe we have and have had, generally, hardworking judges here in the 16th. Also, we cannot lay 100% of the responsibility for expeditious handling of cases at the feet of our rotating judge system. All of our cases, except those originating in specialty courts (juvenile court, drug court, etc.), are assigned to each division by random allotment. Generally speaking, once a non-criminal case is assigned to a judge that judge will oversee that case to its conclusion. In criminal matters, this may not be the case because each judge is assigned, randomly, to one of eight (8) criminal sections for one year terms. Currently, I am assigned to Section 1—St. Martin and next year I have drawn Section 2—St. Martin. I had not served in St. Martin since 2009. Every three months, every division has a petit jury week scheduled to hold criminal trials. Prior to each trial cycle, the parties will have had several opportunities to work through the phases of a criminal proceeding. Status conferences between prosecutors and defense counsel are designed to give them a chance to review evidence or the lack thereof, present their theories and arguments to each other and perhaps iron out a solution. If not, pre-trial conferences are also available where the prosecutor, defense counsel, and defendant can meet with the judge to see if there is a resolution short of going to trial. Again, this is where the judge can serve as a neutral mediator between the parties. Additionally, defendants have motion days and plea days available to get issues before the court.
A great part of this process, though, is outside of the judge’s control. For example, often times, defendants represented by the Public Defender’s Office do not show up to meet with their lawyers. Now, if the State has provided to the Public Defender everything it is required to provide and the Defender has prepared, made appointment dates available and his/her client has chosen not to show up or provide information to the lawyer, I may have to allow the Defender at least one continuance and possibly jail that defendant to ensure the Defender gets to talk to the client. We have had to resort to advising people at arraignment that they will be held in contempt if they do not go to see their Public Defender. Sometimes witnesses do not want to be witnesses and attempt to evade service of subpoenas. In that case, I may have to grant at least one continuance to the State because it isn’t its fault for the delay. Other times, I, as the judge, am presented with mutual continuances by the State and Defense. If it seems legitimate, then I grant the continuance. On the other hand, which is where you can ruffle some feathers, when all credible circumstances indicate that there is unwarranted stalling or requests for continuances from one or both sides, the judge has to hold everyone’s feet to the fire and refuse to continue cases. Particularly where a defendant is in jail and wanting to get his/her case resolved.
— What do you think is most crucial for any candidate seeking the district judge's job?
Integrity. Those of us concerned about these elections, who do not take these decisions lightly, who want to be informed and want to choose well those who they put forth to do serious work, should examine each of our bodies of work...at the office, in the community, what we do not only what we say for honesty, truthfulness, veracity, uprightness, reliability. Select the person who evidences his/her desire to do his/her best, every day, to look at the facts of each case, look at the law that applies, and then do the “right” thing. In the face of opposition, do the “right” thing...when it’s not popular, do the “right” thing...when nobody’s looking, to do the “right” thing. Sometimes doing the right thing means sending someone to jail for ten years, or explaining to the victim of a crime that the defendant won’t go to jail like the victim wants, but will instead get probation or telling a person that suffered a serious personal injury that the law says they are not entitled to receive a large payout from the person or company they hold responsible for their injury or telling the person or company responsible for the injury that they owe the plaintiff half a million dollars. I continue to be such a person, always striving to do the right thing and do the best job that I can. My record speaks to that and I believe it is further evidenced in that our community has in 2002 and again in 2008 placed its trust in me.