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Antics in 19th JDC should affect decision on 32nd

A Louisiana 19th Judicial District judge’s behavior provides the perfect illustration why federal courts should not disdain alterative electoral systems in other districts.

Seven months have passed, and East Baton Rouge Parish’s Judge Janice Clark has yet to act upon a tutorship request for the estate of Helen Plummer. The will for Plummer, who died in March, left a portion of her estate to a minor great-granddaughter, and the mother of the child in order to settle the estate must become legally empowered to act in her child’s name.

As originally written, this would not have caused a problem as the will had specified a trustee would have such power over a trust created for the child upon Plummer’s death. But that trustee turned out to be Tasha Clark-Amar, Clark’s daughter, who the will specified who get extremely generous remuneration for a very modest estate. Clark-Amar heads the East Baton Rouge Council for Aging, where Plummer was a client.

With an EBRCOA board member, Southern University Law Professor Dorothy Jackson, writing the will in a manner that the university suspects breached its own regulations, this raised such a stink that it launched a state inspector general investigation and Clark-Amar legally separated herself from the will and negated its trust arrangement. But the relatively simple succession that would grant portions of the estate to Plummer’s descendants – with only two months remaining in the probate process – remains stuck because Clark refuses to act on the tutorship issue.

Among the 15 judges in the district, random assignment to a judge occurs upon lodging a case or motion. Interestingly, Clark received both the succession and tutorship proceeding; she recused herself from the former as did 13 others, leaving its assignment to Judge Don Johnson, but did not with the latter. And she has sat on it since.

Such outrageous behavior – a simple request like that might take five minutes to deal with so there can be no other reason for delay but spite against the petitioner, whose public condemnation of the original will created the unfavorable publicity that forced Clark-Amar not only to remove herself from the will but also to sue for defamation in a case assigned to Johnson – Clark can get away with because of the lack of accountability built into the election system for the district. In essence, parties domiciled in the district may find themselves in front of a judge over whom they have no electoral input.

Like several other districts in the state with large populations containing a significant number of racial minority members, in order to increase the chances of black candidates winning seats assuming that crossover voting between races occurs minimally, elections occur by judicial sub-districts. The 19th has three, one with a solid majority of blacks, one with a solid majority of whites, and a third with nearly equal numbers.

Along with the will fiasco, Clark-Amar’s tenure at EBRCOA has produced controversies aplenty, including improper electioneering to land itself a dedicated funding stream, leading to considerable criticism of her and the organization. But, as it has a majority of black clients and staff, protecting it as it is and Clark-Amar’s position has become a priority among too many in the area’s black community, regardless of its and her checkered past.

Therefore, Clark knows she can act with impunity on the matter, short of anything that receives judicial censure, because not only will she not suffer electoral retribution as a result, it might even solidify her support (she is eligible for one more term on the bench from the majority-black district). And even if large majorities of the other two-thirds of the entire district see her behavior as detestable and would not want to reelect her, they have no control over that.

Yet with this very obvious flaw in that arrangement, special interests in the 32nd district want to copy that. There, in Terrebone Parish, district judges win election through an at-large system. With a black population around 22 percent, historically it would seem a black judge would win one of the five spots up for grabs every six years. Instead, that happened only the last go-around in 2014, with white judges elected for every spot every previous election.

A suit is working its way through the federal courts that would force state policy-makers to create sub-districts in the 32nd as a remedy, alleging discriminatory intent on their part that would inhibit blacks from election. The decision will boil down to whether the judiciary sees deliberate discrimination going on as opposed to the right of governments to choose their own selection methods for judicial elections and allow voters to let the chips fall where they may.

As proof that a legitimate reason exists for the at-large system, defendants can point to the kinds of abuses possible in the sub-districting system – bad behavior made less likely when all judges are electorally accountable to all voters. Let’s hope the state makes this point referring to the antics of Clark and that federal judges remain open-minded about it.

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