Election Day is just weeks away. In Orleans Parish, voters will choose who will take a seat on the bench in two sections of Criminal District Court.
In the continuing WWNO/WYES series on the Orleans Parish criminal justice system, WYES Community Projects Producer Marcia Kavanaugh helps us understand what the judges at Criminal Court actually do.
“I would think that we need to look for a judge that is going to be fair, that’s not going to discriminate, and that’s going to administer the law,” says Ann Rumley, a New Orleans voter who joins in political discussions at Café Reconcile in Central City, a place that has become known as a hotbed of political discussion.
As the November 4 election draws closer that discussion bounces from the latest in the U.S. Senate race to who’s still in the running for the two sections in Orleans Criminal Court being contested. One has incumbent judge Frank Marullo facing challengers Graham Bosworth and Marie Williams. The other has Municipal Court judge Paul Sens and attorney Byron Williams vying for an open seat.
The Orleans Parish Criminal Court has 13 judges in total – 12 Sections, A through L, and one magistrate.
They all occupy the bench in the massive stone structure at the corner of Tulane and Broad, which is how local vernacular refers to the court.
Thousands of cases and even more people find their way into the court each year. However, most people never have a firsthand encounter with Criminal Court, and never observe what goes on in the halls and the courtrooms.
For any District Court judge the main role is to preside over the trial, says retired judge Terry Alarcon. But he says the trial is much more than what he imagines average citizens realize.
“It begins with initial appearances making sure the proper bail or bond has been set in the matter, and making sure before the trial that there is a level playing field both for the prosecution and the defense,” Alarcon says. “That would involve the hearing of motions, making sure discovery or the evidence that would be needed by both sides in the trial is presented in a forthright fashion in a prompt manner, then the matter would be set for trial.”
Instead, Alarcon thinks the image most people have of criminal court judges is just their presiding over the actual courtroom proceedings.
Managing an efficient courtroom that keeps dockets moving is a process monitored by groups like the Metropolitan Crime Commission and Court Watch NOLA.
“Judges are basically the referees in there. The district attorney decides who to bring to trial in this. Defense attorneys have a job to do. But the judge’s job is to make sure that both sides operate in a fair and efficient manner,” says Raphael Goyeneche, the head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “Some judges are better skilled at managing their dockets than others, and I think that’s a critical issue for the criminal justice system —because justice delayed is justice denied.”
Court Watch NOLA director Brad Cousins says it’s important for anyone to show up on time for work, but it’s especially important for a judge.
“If you’re late all of those public servants — the lawyers and the law enforcement officers who are being paid with taxpayer dollars — are sitting there doing nothing, when they could be out on the streets or doing more work,” Cousins says. “All of those family members and victims who took time off from work or families are just sitting there waiting for things to happen instead of going back to their jobs and families.”
Judge Alarcon says there are times when things just come up that can disrupt a court calendar.
“Being a judge at Criminal District Court is the medical equivalency of being at an emergency room,” he says. “You have a docket and you have your own agenda in terms of how you want to proceed with that docket, but things come in and interrupt.”
Alarcon says the court process isn’t well understood by people unfamiliar with how courtrooms operate.
“They may be sitting in a courtroom and say court’s supposed to start at nine-o’clock — but if you’re meeting with attorneys trying to resolve some preliminary matters, sometimes you might not get on the bench until 9:15 or 9:30.”
Retired judge Calvin Johnson adds that being a judge takes more than just clearing a docket. He says judges make decisions every day that impact both the people in the court and greater society outside of it.
“Your decision may have adverse consequences to a person who’s standing in front of you but it can also have adverse societal consequences, which is why public safety is always an aspect,” Johnson says. Public safety “should always be part of the thought process of a judge who makes decisions in a criminal setting.”
But despite the weight of the job and a high disapproval rating, University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak says many voters don’t take the time to really pay attention to the people seeking the bench – or to those already on it.
“Most people tend to focus on the top of the ballot, and then what we see is people rolling off as they move down the ballot so it’s not really on a lot of people’s radar,” Chervenak says.
Meanwhile, at Café Reconcile, chef Joe Smith keeps the customers happy while also dispensing some advice for voters. He says voters have to know what candidates’ backgrounds are.
“How can you back somebody or support somebody if you really don’t know who they are, you know? Go to the town meetings where they’re going to be at, because I guarantee that they’re speaking somewhere,” he says. “We need to go to these meetings and we ask the questions, because if we don’t ask the questions how do we know where do they stand?”
You can find out where the Criminal Court judgeship candidates stand on issues by going to the WYES Online Candidate Forum.
Also look for the special half-hour program RESHAPING A GREATER NEW ORLEANS: CRIMINAL JUSTICE — ELECTIONS 2014, airing through October on WYES-TV Channel 12.