The office of the Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court serves as both the documentary "hub" for the largest volume of criminal cases in Louisiana and the chief elections office for the city. Since Hurricane Katrina, the office has been held together by some of the lowest-paid employees in the criminal justice system -- after a string of post-storm hardships. In addition to Katrina and a round of city layoffs, the employees also had to endure the stormy and sometimes bizarre three-year tenure of their outgoing boss, Kimberly Williamson Butler.
Butler initially qualified to seek a full term in the office, but suddenly changed her mind on March 3 -- the last day of qualifying -- and opted to run for mayor instead. That decision was announced as she emerged from jail after a judge at Criminal Court found her in contempt of court -- because she hid for more than a week, dodging an arrest warrant. The warrant capped a dispute between Butler and the judges over lack of progress in cleaning up her office's evidence room, where critical evidence is stored for trials.
As elections officer, Butler got into another flap over the failure to deliver voting machines to 90 precincts on Sept. 18, 2004, for citywide school board elections. She was expected to draw a large field of opponents, and she did -- 11 candidates are now competing for her job. The primary is Saturday; a runoff is expected on May 20.
The candidates vying to replace Butler pledge to improve working conditions while modernizing the office and making it more efficient. Of special interest is maintenance of the courthouse's evidence rooms. The basement of Criminal Court flooded during Katrina, and the potential damage to dozens of criminal cases is still being assessed, District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. says.
With money and media attention focused on races for mayor and the City Council, the clerk of Criminal Court's contest has generated relatively little voter interest. Yet, many agree the office deserves more public attention -- especially with a recent resurgence in crime.
"The cornerstone of the New Orleans criminal justice system is the Clerk of Criminal Court's office," says Anthony Radosti, vice president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission and a retired NOPD police detective.
Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the University of New Orleans who has undertaken a study of the local criminal justice system for the U.S. Department of Justice, agrees: "[The Clerk's Office] is critical if you believe that speedy process of cases will increase your prosecution rate and your conviction rate, which I do believe."
Yet, the clerk's office has always been "the unwanted stepchild" of the criminal justice system, Radosti and Scharf say. Unlike other elected officials, clerks of court typically do not seek the public spotlight -- and certainly most do not liken themselves to charismatic leaders such as Martin Luther King and Gandhi, as Butler did after her brief stay in jail.
Of the candidates for her job, most are promising a period of relative anonymity.
The apparent front-runners are lawyers Nick Varrecchio and Millard Collins. Varrecchio, who ran for a City Council at-large seat in 1994, boasts a number of major endorsements, including the AFL-CIO and the Alliance for Good Government. "Our courts and our election process are secured by the office of clerk of Criminal District Court," Varrecchio says. "I believe I have the vision, the experience, the organizational skills and the leadership capabilities to correct the problems of the office."
Collins, a lawyer for the Clerk of Court's office for 20 years under Butler's predecessor, has dominated the field in campaign television buys. "The most obvious challenge is to reestablish the authenticity and chain of custody of evidence to assist the Criminal Court judges in the proper prosecution of cases," Collins says. "Also, voter confidence in the functions of the election process must be reestablished. Ongoing recruitment of commissioners and extensive use of government-access channels should alleviate our problems."
Veteran state Rep. Arthur A. Morrell vows to use his legislative experience to obtain more funding for the office, including better pay. He notes that Katrina "did lots of damage to the property room" on the basement floor of the Criminal Courts building, and he vows to get the evidence room and the records rooms restored and functioning at peak efficiency.
The other two candidates with name recognition are former Criminal Court Judge Morris Reed and retired NOPD Deputy Chief David Kent. Reed has run unsuccessfully for several offices in recent years. Kent ran for City Council in 1994, and has been a security consultant since retiring from NOPD.
In addition to the critical role of keeping the criminal justice system's wheels turning, the clerk's office also handles qualifying for local political offices at election time, the storage and maintenance of voting machines, and the counting of votes in local elections.
Despite the hardships, the April 22 elections should run smoothly, says deputy clerk Joe Broussard, a veteran in the office. "The biggest problem has been solved, which was locating polling places" amid Katrina's widespread destruction.
Voting for 442 New Orleans precincts will take place at 93 locations, down from 255 before Katrina. Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater's office has stepped in to help pull off the citywide elections.
Clerk, Criminal District Court
Sanjay K. Biswas, 34, Republican
Millard Collins, 54, Democrat
David R. Kent, 67, Republican
Juana Marine Lombard, 39, Democrat
Paul Mirarchi Massa, 40, Green
Arthur A. Morrell, 63, Democrat
Robert "Bob" Murray, 48, Democrat
Morris W. Reed, 57, Democrat
Patricia Boyd Robertson, 46, Democrat
Autumn Town, 29, Democrat
Nick Varrecchio, 45, Democrat
- Cheryl Gerber
- Criminal Court Clerk Kimberly Williamson Butler initially qualified for re-election, then suddenly changed her mind and opted to run for mayor instead.