Correction: This story incorrectly reported 40-60 evictions processed each day. The correct number is 40-60 evictions each week. We regret the error.
Next month, city of Lafayette voters have on their ballots a special judicial election, one with the potential to permanently alter the course of an offender’s life while ensuring fairness in civil and traffic cases.
Candidates Toby Aguillard, Roya Boustany and Jules Edwards III are on the Nov. 8 ballot for Lafayette City Court Division A. The seat was vacated by Judge Michelle Odinet after a video surfaced of her using racist language in 2021.
Many only know the court as the place where they pay for their traffic tickets. But City Court does a lot more that — except issue traffic fines.
“We do not hand out tickets,” jokes Chief City Court Judge Douglas Saloom (Division B). “People say, ‘You gave me a ticket.’ I didn’t give you a ticket.”
City Court is often thought of as low stakes. But what happens there can have a substantial impact on people’s lives. The setting is intimate, often without lawyers, meaning the judges play an even bigger and more personal role in what’s often called the People’s Court.
“To their chagrin, I like to talk to people about their situation,” Saloom says.
What does the court do?
Lafayette City Court handles a wide range of legal matters beyond traffic violations, including misdemeanor criminal charges, misdemeanor juvenile cases, and issues involving local ordinances, says Mike Hill, a former federal magistrate judge and former interim Lafayette city marshal. The court does not handle felony cases.
“It is the court that citizens most interact with,” Hill says.
The court also deals in civil matters such as evictions and operates as a small claims court.
For instance, if your neighbor smashes your mailbox, you would take them to the City Court to sue for a replacement — as long as the mailbox is valued at under $5,000.
Most of City Court’s civil cases are evictions and other disputes among landlords and tenants, Saloom says. The court has handled nearly 2,000 evictions this year, a major uptick from the previous year. The court typically deals with 40 to 60 evictions a week.
In criminal cases at City Court, a private attorney or public defender appears on behalf of a defendant, but civil cases typically don’t involve attorneys. That means in civil matters judges must explain and make decisions that are easily understandable to the layperson. Ease of beginning legal procedure and accessible language are what makes the court so important, Hill says.
“It’s been called the People’s Court, and I think that is accurate,” Hill says. “That makes City Court and city court judges important actors in the justice system.”
Current issues facing the Court
City Court has been in a tense position since Odinet assumed the bench and even since her exit. Conflict between Lafayette Consolidated Government and City Court over the court’s budget is ongoing. The court’s budget was restructured to pass more of its revenues through LCG.
The budget issues figured into a strained relationship between Odinet and Saloom. She accused Saloom and her predecessor of abusing the court’s expense accounts, which led to a protracted audit of City Court’s finances. Odinet took aim at car lease allowances — refusing to take one herself — and accused Saloom and former City Court Judge Francie Bouillion of inappropriate spending on meals. Saloom says the Louisiana Legislative Auditor reviewed the court’s expense records and declined to launch an investigation.
The city recently asked state court to dismiss a public records lawsuit against City Court attorney Gary McGoffin connected to that audit.
In a statement, Saloom said the lawsuit was “unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money.”
Why does Louisiana elect judges?
Judges are supposed to be impartial, but in Louisiana, they’re elected and hold party affiliations. Many states in the U.S. appoint their judges to distance themselves from the political theater. Currently, 39 states elect some level of judges.
Hill and Saloom say electing judges is a core part of Louisiana’s history and gives citizens more power over the judiciary.
Louisiana did not always elect judges. Prior to statehood judges were selected by the president of the United States, Hill says. Later, Louisiana governors would appoint judges. By the beginning of the 1900s, appointing power fell out of favor and the state started electing judges.
“It’s a matter of democracy,” Hill says. “People want to vote on the man or woman who will wield this justice over them.”
Why do judges run on party lines?
Because judges are elected, you might not be surprised that they run with party affiliations. There are only eight states, including Louisiana, that allow partisan judge races.
The reason: political shorthand.
With Lafayette being a heavily conservative area, judges are finding it difficult to run as anything other than a Republican, Hill says. Putting an ‘R’ after their name all but ensures a certain number of votes.
But that doesn’t mean the courts, particularly City Court, are partisan in their rulings.
“Trial and city judges are probably the least party-line oriented,” Saloom, a Republican, says.
The Legislature considered a bill this year — House Bill 206 — to remove political orientation from judicial races. HB206 failed against political opposition that included some judges, according to Saloom.
This year’s slate of candidates includes two Republicans — Boustany and Aguillard — and one no-party candidate — Jules Edwards.
What impact do city judges have?
Judges can change the trajectory of a person’s entire life. Having a competent judge who acts with understanding and fairness is key.
“The court wants a broad spectrum of opinions. City Court judges see a lot of people, and they deal with real-life issues,” Hill says.
Judges also have a hand in shaping laws. They often sit on law-making committees that inform legislators on how their laws might play out in the courts. Saloom, for example, worked on a committee that rewrote Louisiana’s OWI laws that hardened penalties.
By taking the extra time to talk one-on-one with teens and young adults who have found their way into the justice system, Saloom believes he can impact their lives in positive ways. The court works alongside organizational programs and other departments to help create solutions to underlying problems that are causing reckless behavior.
“That’s where the judge’s job is difficult,” Saloom says. “It takes three seconds to put someone in jail for six months. But that doesn’t solve any problems.”