As voters head to the polls for next week’s mid-term elections, they will also be voting in hundreds of local races for district attorney, often with little information about the candidates or their positions, despite the enormous effect these men and women have over the criminal justice system.
Earlier this week, we took a look at three closely contested district attorney races in big cities: Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Interestingly, Washington, D.C., will have its first election for a chief prosecutor this year–for what had been an appointed office–and HuffPo has a quick run down on the candidates, all of whom seem to be running on an anti-corruption agenda. Today, however, we look over the border from the Lone Star State, at some smaller races in the always fertile soil of Louisiana, where financial scandals and issues of public transparency appear to be taking precedence over debates about prosecution policy.
Three to Watch in Louisiana
St. Tammany and Washington Parishes: On the affluent, conservative northshore of Lake Pontchartrain, District Attorney Walter Reed has been in office since 1984. He has promoted the nickname “St. Slammany” to promote his jurisdiction having one of the highest incarceration rates in the state. But following revelations that he had enriched himself and his senior staff through wildly generous health benefits, and winning the number two spot on the Best of New Orleans Political Scandals, behind Ray Nagin, he chose not to run for reelection, setting off a scramble amongst four Republicans to replace him.
The Times-Picayune has a handy run-down on Brian Trainor, Warren Montgomery, Roy Burns, and Alan Black. The Times has endorsed Montgomery, citing his experience both as a Assistant United States Attorney and, since 2001, his practice as a defense lawyer. According to the paper, all four have distanced themselves from the “St. Slammany” label, though Trainor, currently on leave from his job as chief deputy of the Sheriff’s Office, said at a recent forum, “We’ve got to be honest with ourselves. We live just minutes away from one of America’s most dangerous cities. The people of this district don’t want that kind of violence coming here. But no prosecutor or law enforcement leader should wave that nickname as a badge of honor.”
The campaign has recently taken a negative turn, with a bar complaint being filed against Trainor over his conduct in a personal injury case, and accusations by Montgomery that Trainor fundraised for the race while still a government employee. Whether or not that is true, coming into the home stretch Trainor has twice as much money as any of the other candidates
Lafayette, Acadia, and Vermilion Parishes: For the first time in eighteen years, District Attorney Mike Harson is facing an opponent in the 15th Judicial District in the southwest of the state. According to the Daily Advertiser, which reports on Cajun country, his opponent is former Assistant District Attorney Keith Stutes.
The elephant in the room — and in this race — is an alleged bribery scheme that rocked the district attorney’s office in February 2012 when the FBI raided the office and confiscated files. An assistant district attorney and his secretary, along with Harson’s long-time administrative assistant, pleaded guilty in the scheme. The alleged mastermind, former Lafayette private investigator Robert Williamson, is slated to go to trial Dec. 8. His trial was scheduled to begin Oct. 20, but was pushed back until after the Nov. 4 election. Federal prosecutors noted in court documents that the bribery occurred because of a lack of oversight in the DA’s office.
ADA Stutes left Harson’s office after conducting his own internal investigation into the allegations, but has thus far not used any information he gleaned as fodder against his old boss, relying instead on the public record. Harson has apologized for the scandal, but claims he had no knowledge of the events. He’s running ads featuring rape victims and relatives of murder victims thanking him for his work on their behalf. Stutes, on the other hand, “said he intentionally has not capitalized on [cases he prosecuted] during the campaign out of respect for the victims and families.”
Bossier-Webster Parrishes: In the 26th Judicial District outside Shreveport, incumbent Republican Schulyer Marvin is trying to fend off a challenge from fellow Republican, and former prosecutor, Whit Graves to secure a third six-year term. According to the Shreveport Times, which has a useful backgrounder here as well as a real public service of a joint interview, Graves has attacked Marvin on two fronts: his decision upon taking office twelve years ago to cease “placing police reports in the clerk of court files” effectively barring them from public view; and what he deems unacceptably generous plea bargains in recent homicide cases. Marvin has raised over $300,000, and Graves has run unsuccessfully for various offices in the area before, so chances are good that incumbency will win out in this race.
Across the country next Tuesday, hundreds more district attorneys will be elected, many unopposed (indeed, in Whatcom County, Washington, the incumbent’s only competitor is a dog). Most of these contests will get little attention in the press. And yet each of these elections carries serious consequences for the men, women, and children who will be caught up in the criminal justice system in the years ahead.
As we said earlier, prosecutorial accountability runs through the ballot box as much as it does through any change in policy. To make that accountability real in Texas, Louisiana, and in every other state, candidates have to run, and people have to vote.