Few Appeals Court Judges Get Election Challenges
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Twenty-two state appeals court judgeships are on the Nov. 6 ballot, but voters will only make choices in five of those races.
More than three-quarters of the jobs were handed to candidates when they attracted no opposition as the qualifying period closed last week.
"It's a normal pattern," said Ginger Sawyer, who has followed judicial races for two decades in her work for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
While most of those elected without opposition were incumbents, five candidates are getting 10-year appellate court terms for the first time without even a challenge. All are district court judges moving up the judicial system ladder.
In Louisiana, elections for the judiciary often attract interest only from the business and legal communities that are most invested in the outcome of court decisions.
Stacia Haynie, a political science professor at LSU, called judicial races "low-information elections" that give an advantage to incumbents and where candidates are often on a professional track that leads from one level of the judiciary up to the next.
"They just don't draw a lot of attention, either from people who would be potential challengers or from the voters," she said.
Sawyer said incumbent judges rarely get challenged and appeals court positions often function as a system of seniority or promotion for district court judges.
"It's almost as if some of these people are considered to be an heir apparent," said Sawyer, vice president for political action for LABI. The organization's political action committees endorse and financially support judicial candidates.
Louisiana has five state courts of appeal, with the numbers of judges in each ranging from eight to 12. While some states have appointed judges, all of Louisiana's state judges are elected to their positions.
All appeals court judgeships on the fall ballot for the Lake Charles-based 3rd Circuit and the Gretna-based 5th Circuit were decided when qualifying closed, because the races attracted only one candidate each.
In the 5th Circuit — which covers four parishes up the Mississippi River from New Orleans — three of its five seats up for election were filled by newcomers to the jobs, local district court judges who will move into new positions without opposition.
The state constitution requires judges to retire after they reach 70 years old, allowing them to complete the remainder of their term but unable to run again. Sawyer said because of the retirement mandate, district court judges can track when the seats will be open.
"People know when the judges are going to be retiring, so they almost set up a system in which they get themselves out a year or two ahead of the race," a move that can discourage others from seeking the seat, she said.
A lawyer who might be interested in running for the judgeships would have little incentive to run against a sitting judge because the lawyer will have to practice before that judge at some level unless the judge is ousted from the elected post, Sawyer said.
Also re-elected without opposition was Justice John Weimer on the seven-member Louisiana Supreme Court. However, an open spot on the state's highest court has become a crowded race.
Eight candidates — including four appeals court judges — are vying for the seat representing the eight-parish Baton Rouge area that is vacant because Chief Justice Catherine "Kitty" Kimball is retiring. Most of the candidates are judges from lower courts.