New Orleans voters will decide this fall whether to replace a longtime city and traffic court judge and who should succeed another.
In Division D, Acting Judge Mark Shea faces a challenge from former district attorney Derek Russ. In Division E, former Assistant City Attorney Geoffrey Gates and Defense Attorney Bobbie Smith compete to replace retired Judge Sean Early.
The winners will sit on a transitional bench after years of disruption from a cyberattack, the pandemic and Hurricane Ida. Since his permanent home was damaged by last year’s storm, the court substantiates temporary excavations at the former Veterans Affairs Hospital near City Hall. All candidates promise to expand their use of virtual hearings and social services, but differ on how much experience and type is required to serve on the bench.
Early voting will take place from October 25th to November 1st. The election will take place on November 8th. The court deals with traffic violations and a variety of offenses including theft, battery and drunk driving.
Veteran meets newcomer
Shea, who turns 64 this month, comes from a family well known to longtime voters. His father was also a judge and his brother was a city councilman. When he first won the election in 2009, he campaigned as a public defender with experience handling an estimated 55,000 cases over 22 years.
“I don’t have on-the-job training,” Shea said.
As a judge, he helped introduce a new electronic case management system. With the other judges, he is preparing the introduction of a virtual traffic court next year. The court also requested and received $800,000 for “all-round” benefits.
Defendants who are referred to outside social services often don’t get there to use those services, Shea said. “We just hope that we can keep everything in-house and reduce relapses,” he said.
Shea, a 1984 graduate of Southern University Law Center who lives in Lake Terrace, notes, slightly exaggerated, that he’s been a lawyer almost as long as Russ has been alive. Russ, 44, says there’s something missing from Shea despite his years on the bench.
“I think the court could use more compassion,” he said. “It’s more than experience. That should and is a qualification for this particular position, but it depends on how you use that experience.”
Shea is too quick to send defendants to jail for minor offenses, Russ claims. Shea says he only uses jail time in certain circumstances, such as B. thugs showing a pattern of abuse and people caught carrying guns illegally on Bourbon Street.
A 2004 graduate of Southern University Law Center and residing in the 7th Circuit, Russ served as an assistant city attorney for 14 years prosecuting traffic and community cases. This was followed by two years as clerk in another court department before resigning to run against Shea.
Like the current judge, he promises to expand the use of virtual court hearings. He also promises to introduce a night court for local residents who cannot do without work during the day.
In a New Orleans Bar Association poll this month of more than 200 members, Shea received 89% support. He’s also leading the money race, with $114,000 in donations this year, compared to $9,900 for Russ, who lent an additional $39,300 to his campaign.
Elsewhere on the ballot, two Southern University Law Center graduates who live in Algiers are hoping to get into the bench after years of practice in court. Smith, 57, is up against Gates, 55, to replace Early, the Division E judge whose announcement that he would be retiring on December 31 sparked the election.
Gates was a clerk at the 1st City Court and an assistant district attorney before joining the city’s attorney general’s office more than 14 years ago.
He believes the court should offer more social services to intervene in the lives of the accused before they are charged with more serious crimes.
“People in court come with a lot of trauma and fear because we’ve been through so many things,” he said, pointing to Hurricanes Ida and Katrina and COVID. “I would like to see more comprehensive courthouse services where people can get help.”
While he also defends cases in other communities in a separate, private practice, Gates said his experience handling thousands of cases in city and traffic courts gives him “special expertise” for the job.
Smith, who was supported by the community’s Democratic Party and US Rep. Troy Carter, says he is the more well-rounded candidate. He started out in the district attorney’s office and worked there for about four years, but spent most of his 20-year career as a criminal defense attorney. He also served as an ad hoc judge at the General Court in 2017.
“I think the fact that I sat there as a judge is significant,” Smith said. “I actually did the job. I did three important jobs that they will do at City and Traffic Court.”
Like Gates, he promises to expand the range of services offered to the accused. He believes the court could make more extensive use of the virtual hearings on a normal basis and in response to disasters.
In the New Orleans Bar Association poll, Gates received 58% support, compared to Smith’s 42%. According to her most recent campaign financial reports, Smith had raised $27,000 and loaned his campaign another $40,000. Gates had raised $31,000.