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New Orleans Public Defenders Got Sick of Unjust Judges. Now They’re Running to Unseat Them.

Slate logo Slate 10/16/2020 Maura Ewing
a sign in front of a building: Control over New Orleans’ criminal district court is up for grabs in November. Bill Haber/AP © Provided by Slate Control over New Orleans’ criminal district court is up for grabs in November. Bill Haber/AP

Early in 2018, New Orleans defense attorney Nandi Campbell had an “aha” moment. She had come to court to defend one of her clients for what she considered a bogus charge: The alleged offense was “using an unauthorized vehicle,” but boiled down to borrowing his girlfriend’s grandmother’s rental car without her permission. The grandmother had reported the car stolen, but dropped that claim as soon as she learned its whereabouts.

Campbell understood that the district attorney’s office was much more interested in her client’s potential as an informant in an unrelated gang case, and believed they had arrested him for leverage.

“No judge in their right mind would have signed that warrant,” she said, and yet “one did.”

At this hearing, the prosecutor asked that the young man’s bond be increased—again, Campbell saw this as a move to pressure him into becoming an informant. Contrary to the judge who had signed the initial warrant, this one refused to impose a higher bond or to hear any more arguments on the issue, thereby taking the teeth out of the prosecutor’s threats of keeping him in jail. The prosecutor immediately dropped the case and the defendant went home.

“It dawned on me that if the first judge hadn’t signed the warrant, we wouldn’t need the second one,” Campbell said. In other words, a judge could have thwarted the prosecutor’s attempt to strong-arm a witness. “That sealed the deal for me, that judges are powerful players in the system.”

Now, Campbell is running for criminal court judge. Campbell started her career as a public defender and today runs her own firm that represents indigent clients. After years of operating in these courts, “you see how the system is set up to process people who are the most oppressed, who are poor, who are living in over-policed areas,” she said.

She, along with six other judicial-hopefuls, comprise an unprecedented wave of reform-minded candidates in New Orleans. Campbell and three others are running for criminal court judge, while the other three are running for juvenile, municipal and magistrate court (where bail is initially set). Everyone in this group is or was a public defender—including two former chief public defenders—and none have worked as a prosecutor, which sets them apart from traditional candidates. Two are running against incumbents, while the rest are running against former prosecutors or law enforcement officials—including one who ran for District Attorney in 2014—aside from one, who worked as a judicial administrator at the juvenile court and publicly supported a controversial measure that put more teens behind bars for minor crimes.

New Orleans has long been among the most incarcerated cities in the country, with a criminal justice system riddled with inefficiencies and corruption. Black men only make up 19 percent of the city’s population, but in the jail that jumps to 88 percent.  While police and prosecutors are often blamed, some systemic issues track back to judges. For example, a federal lawsuit accuses felony court judges here of imposing bail without considering a defendant’s ability to pay, and using bail to coerce guilty pleas at arraignment in order to quicken case resolutions.

“Lock ‘em up and throw away the key candidates, that’s historically the slate of judges that we see. Here, you have something 180-degrees different,” said Calvin Johnson, former chief judge of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. If they all win, the cohort will occupy seven of the city’s 17 open benches. “We could literally have the criminal justice system in New Orleans fundamentally changed.”

Over the past several years, the country has seen a surge of district and state attorneys elected on campaigns to end mass incarceration, but rarely do they have like-minded counterparts vying for election in the judicial branch.

“For decades we’ve been complaining about the court system and mass incarceration,” said Steve Singer, a law professor and former chief public defender running for Magistrate Judge. “You can yell and scream and cry and try to persuade from the outside, it’s a lot easier to effect change from the inside.”

It’s not yet clear how much of a dent these reform campaigns are making in the polls. But lately, the city has shown an appetite for change. City leaders have won large grants from the MacArthur Foundation to reduce the jail population by increasing diversion programs and reliance on cash bail, among other initiatives. Reform is also central on the campaign trail for district attorney this year, as it did in the mayoral race two years ago—the current mayor, LaToya Cantrell, ran on a campaign to continue implementing measures to reduce incarceration. (Her track record in office has been mixed.)

If elected, Campbell plans to use the power of the bench to put fewer people away and impose shorter sentences. She plans to circumvent what she considers draconian mandatory minimums. Louisiana law doubles down on people with any prior convictions. This statute jarred Campbell as soon as she started practicing law in Louisiana, where she started her career straight from law school in New York City.

“You have individuals with no priors other than drug crimes doing 20 years. And when he’s doing his 20 years he’s getting no rehabilitation,” she said. “I don’t want to live in a community where I’m just shuffling people off to jail for non-violent crimes.”

In her courtroom, she would employ a seldom-used case law that gives judges leeway if they can give specific reasons to sentence a defendant to less time than the mandatory minimum. She also wants to incorporate input from the defendant’s family and community before sending him or her away for a long time.  For example, if a defendant’s family speaks to the court “you see the impact it has on kids,” she said. “I say to people that when my client goes to jail his whole family is punished.”

Campbell’s counterparts are similarly campaigning on promises to scale back incarceration. Notably, Singer promises to completely eliminate cash bail if he is elected to Magistrate Judge—or to impose a symbolic $1 bond when law requires. Rather, he would boost pretrial services such as addiction counseling and other social services, while defendants who could be a threat to the community—people accused of domestic abuse, for example—would be held without the possibility of release. And Meg Garvey, another public defender running for municipal court, plans to forgive the massive backlog of outstanding warrants, some of which date back decades; track and publish racial disparities in cases brought to her court, and bring a less punitive approach to minor cases.

“I think that people are ready for change, I think they’re sick of the inefficiency,” Garvey said. “I don’t remember so many people being excited about judicial elections.”

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