20100616-cover-0101Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Written by Penny Font
Photos by Robin May

A key vacancy on the Third Circuit Court of Appeal could help turn the embattled court’s reputation around — if voters make the right choice.


It’s been quite some time since Chuck Ziegler has seen a hotly contested judicial race in Lafayette.

And that’s only one of the reasons the Lafayette Bar Association president expects the fight for the vacant seat on the Third Circuit Court of Appeal to garner more than its usual share of public interest and scrutiny before voters choose a winner in October. Qualifying is July 7-9.

The winner will represent a section of the court that extends from Milton up to the St. Landry Parish line, and includes most of the cities of Lafayette, Broussard, Carencro, Milton and Scott.


Four candidates — all of them GOPers with diverse backgrounds quite possibly more compelling than contestants on an episode of Survivor — are vying for the bench. 

20100616-cover-0102Three are women. Two are sitting judges, and one is the daughter of a former Third Circuit judge. Three attended law school later in life — one of them after a lengthy career as a dental hygienist. And one has racked up significant overtime at taxpayer expense; another made a last-minute political party switch that is proving fodder for critics.  

Family Court Judge Phyllis Keaty is widely considered to be the frontrunner at this point. The Lafayette native is well-connected and already has raised $53,225 — much of it from doctors and lawyers in town. However, she bears a reputation for running a sluggish docket — one that has cost taxpayers thousands in overtime fees for her clerk.
City Court Judge Francie Bouillion already ran unsuccessfully for a Third Circuit multi-parish seat six years ago but is expected to fare better in this all-Lafayette district. What she lacks in financing, she is expected to make up in tireless campaigning. However, her unheralded change of political parties last month from independent to Republican — even as her husband is treasurer of the Lafayette Parish Democratic Executive Committee — has drawn some criticism for its timing.

Characteristically bow-tied Steven “Buzz” Durio is a respected, qualified and high-profile general practice attorney in town. While judicial experience is not required for the job, his lack of it in a race with two longtime judges could prove challenging.

And Jeanne Laborde has the Third Circuit in her blood, so to speak. The attorney, who lives in Broussard right on the parish line, is registered to vote in St. Martin Parish and practices law in Lafayette, is the daughter of retired Third Circuit Judge P.J. Laborde. Of the three, legal and political observers say, her name is perhaps least known among voters. 
  
“From my perception, this is the first real contested race we’ve had in a Lafayette in a while for the Third Circuit. It’s something we haven’t seen that much of,” says Ziegler, who predicts a runoff. “For that reason alone, it’s going to be an interesting race. We have a very broad group that is running, and it’s going to be interesting to see how it will come out.”
The race will determine who will fill the spot left vacant by the passing of Judge Michael Sullivan on the appellate court that covers 21 parishes in central and southwest Louisiana — the largest geographic area of any circuit in the state. A dozen judges serve on the court.

It comes at a critical time for the Third Circuit, whose reputation in the legal community is somewhat tarnished for its frequently overturned decisions.

Neither the Third Circuit itself nor the Louisiana Supreme Court claims to keep any statistics on how often any particular appellate court errs in its rulings. 
 
But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence. Just last month, the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned a Third Circuit decision that would have allowed Ernal “EJ” Broussard, who was convicted of aiding and abetting an illegal gambling business in 2005, to run for the Abbeville City Council. Louisiana law disqualifies a person from holding public office who has been convicted of a felony in state or federal courts for 15 years after they complete their sentence, unless they are pardoned by the governor.

In doing so, the Third Circuit judges argued that Louisiana law does not contain an aiding and abetting statute, and therefore the felony ban did not apply. But the Supreme Court pointed out that the appellate judges erroneously ignored a basic principle of state statutory criminal law: All persons who aid and abet in the commission of a crime are considered principals to the crime.

Retired Third Circuit Judge Ned Doucet, who served on the court for more than two decades and now lives in Florida, says he, too, is surprised by the number of candidates running for the appellate seat. But he says he knows all four candidates and believes all are qualified.

“Besides knowing the law, it takes judicial temperament and what I call judicial common sense,” Doucet says. “You’re going to be working very closely with 11 other judges on intellectual exercises. There are going to be varying opinions, and unless the person has a judicial temperament, it filters into the court and doesn’t make for a very cohesive court.”

As far as Doucet is concerned, experienced judges have no advantage over practicing attorneys in the race. “Being a judge is like anything else — it’s a learning process,” he says. “The law is fluid, so you need only be able to keep up with that. You have to go into the law as it was intended, look at the legislative arguments made by the authors of the law and see what the intent was. Those kinds of things you grow into; you learn. You just have to have good old common sense.”

20100616-cover-0104
Keaty says her knack for listening to litigants makes her court move slowly.

Phyllis Keaty
From the beginning, Keaty has taken a very visible lead in this campaign.

By the time she announced she was running for the Third Circuit Court of Appeal in May, Keaty had already raised $53,225 and spent nearly $15,000 in her bid for office.

Credit much of that to Nancy Landry, Keaty’s former clerk who is now a state legislator. The judge has hired Landry’s Lafayette-based political consulting firm, Pelican Strategies, to run her campaign. Campaign finance records show the judge paid the firm $2,000 in February and $2,995.85 in March.

She’s also paid $2,152.50 to Arsement Productions for an eight-minute biographical video posted on her website and on YouTube, and another $4,500 for Trail Blazer campaign management software.

The Lafayette native is married to William Keaty, a pediatric dentist, for whom she worked as a hygienist for 16 years.

She decided to attend law school at the age of 40 after her father — a Lafayette physician — was murdered by his wife.

Keaty was so impressed with then-District Judge Don Aaron’s handling of the case that she decided she wanted to become a judge herself.

She commuted to Tulane Law School in New Orleans, and after graduating in 1990 worked as a clerk for three different state district judges. “I had no ambition to practice law,” she says. Eight years later, she made her own successful run for the bench, and has been unopposed ever since.

One of Keaty’s first accomplishments was to help start Lafayette’s family court, along with then-Judge Ronnie Cox. At the time, families often waited a year or 18 months before settling matters of child custody and financial support. Now, she says, those decisions take about three months.

Even so, one of the biggest criticisms of Keaty centers on the amount of time it takes to resolve cases in her courtroom.
Records obtained from the Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court’s Office indicate Keaty’s minute clerk, Janet Guidry, has racked up 730 hours of overtime and compensatory leave time since November 2005, sometimes working in court until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.

By comparison, the minute clerk and minute clerk in training for the other family court judge have 499.5 hours of overtime and compensatory leave time during that same period, not all of it spent in court.

Keaty’s minute clerk is paid $21.92 an hour, with overtime paid at time and a half.

A high-level courthouse insider who declined to be identified says Keaty’s court frequently doesn’t start until mid-morning, requiring the minute clerk to remain after hours. The Louisiana Legislature sets office hours for all clerks of court offices in the state from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.

Keaty says she’s been criticized for her courts running late for nearly eight years. However, she insists it isn’t because of a late start.

“Our court starts on time,” she says. “Mine might tend to run later. I don’t know how Judge [David] Blanchet runs his court, but I can tell you I have a strong philosophy that makes me probably more open to longer time with litigants, that philosophy goes back to my upbringing.

My father was a doctor and one time he told me, ‘If you listen long enough, the patients will tell you what’s wrong with them.’ That’s where the art of medicine is practiced,” she says. “I’ve carried that out to the court system. If I listen long enough, the litigants will tell me what’s best for the kids. I know that’s been a criticism of me, and that’s OK. I’ve known that for about eight years now that people criticize that my courts go on and on, and I let people talk too much, but I’m satisfied with what we’ve accomplished. It’s my time as well as theirs; I don’t ask anyone to give anything I don’t give.”
Keaty says she wants to move on to the Third Circuit because it is a logical progression in her career. Of the criticisms of the Third Circuit’s reversal rate, she says she’s convinced the court is improving, and she wants to be a part of that process.

“I do believe the Third Circuit is working toward becoming more consistent,” she says. “The jurisprudence that’s come out just in the last year seems to show that. All of the judges on the Third Circuit are trying to get to where one panel is consistent with rulings from a prior panel. That’s what I hope to continue to work toward.”

And how does she plan to accomplish that?

“By being very aware of what the Supreme Court has ruled in the past in reversing the Third Circuit, and being well educated on the jurisprudence of what the Third Circuit has ruled in the past and affirmed by the Supreme Court and support those prior rulings,” she says. “We all make mistakes. I’ve been reversed, and I take it as a learning experience. It’s always good to know when you’ve done something wrong and someone has corrected you.”

20100616-cover-0103

Bouillion will knock on thousands of doors before
the October election
.

Francie Bouillion
Bouillion isn’t the least bit intimidated by Keaty’s war chest.

To date, she has raised about half that amount — $23,050, according to her March campaign finance report. But she knows from experience that money doesn’t always determine the winner in a local political race.

Sixteen years ago, Bouillion was elected Lafayette City Court judge despite spending half what her opponents did. What worked for her that time was knocking on the doors of 20,000 homes — and she and her husband have already been to thousands for this race.

“I actually don’t view anybody else’s campaign, and I have no opinion on that particular campaign,” Bouillion says. “Money is not the most important thing. I think we will have the finances that we need.”


The Bronx native grew up in Oklahoma City and went to college in Kansas, where she met her husband Ken, a New Iberia native. He earned his doctoral degree in psychology and brought his family back to Louisiana.

After a career in the Social Security Administration, Bouillion graduated from LSU Law Center at the age of 39 — one day after her oldest child graduated from high school.

20100616-cover-0105She clerked for U.S. District Judge John M. Duhe and spent six years as a lawyer with Gordon, Arata, McCollam, Duplantis & Eagan firm, practicing everything from white collar criminal law to commercial banking. But what she really wanted was to be a judge.

“The firm was just wonderful, but I was not really cut out for being a lawyer in my mind,” she says. “I just didn’t enjoy it as much. Being a judge, I do feel like I am cut out for that.”

When Judge Kaliste Saloom retired, one of the lawyers in the firm asked her if she was throwing her hat in the ring for Lafayette City Court. “I said, what ring?” Bouillion says. “I didn’t even know about the position.”

Not long after being elected, Bouillion helped establish a juvenile probation officer for the court to help work with young people in the system. That remains a passion for her, and she has served on the statewide advisory board for the Juvenile Justice Commission. She has also made recommendations on domestic violence legislation to ensure that protective orders can be effectively enforced.

This is her second go-round for a spot on the Third Circuit. She ran unsuccessfully in a multi-parish section race in September 2004.

Bouillion is admittedly troubled by the reputation of the appellate court. What is needed on any court, she says, are judges who know and understand the law, and make decisions based not on motions or personal opinions, but the law.

That’s going to be particularly important in the coming years, when the court is likely to review rulings on complicated contractual issues related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“I do think the reputation of the Third Circuit is not as good as it was when I was in law school, and that does trouble me,” says Bouillion, who is an adjunct professor at LSU Law Center. “The judges on any court do need to make sure they apply the law as written, rather than trying to rewrite. That would go a long way toward improving the reputation of the court. I’m not being critical of the court or any individual judges, because as judges come and go, the makeup changes, and it can be better or worse. But I think I am somebody who can definitely help contribute.”

In recent weeks, Bouillion has encountered some criticism for her decision last month to change her political affiliation from independent to Republican. The region that will elect this judge is widely regarded as conservative, with voters who tend to lean Republican.

She says she did so because as an independent, it is “just too difficult for people to identify what your judicial philosophy is, so I decided to return to the Republican Party.”

20100616-cover-0106
Durio wants to cap his long career in private practice with “public service.”

Steven “Buzz” Durio
Durio knows he’s not the rabbit in this race. He’ll tell you he’s running on the tortoise model.

There is no indication of how well his fundraising is going, since no campaign finance report is on file yet for this race.
“I think my campaign is going very well, even though it’s probably a little under the radar right now,” he says. “But when we finally hit the streets, you’ll see quite a bit of activity. As they say, ‘slow and steady wins the race.’”

This is Durio’s second attempt at public office. He ran unsuccessfully for state representative in 2004, losing a runoff election to Joel Robideaux.

This time, Durio is one of two attorneys running against two sitting judges, but he doesn’t see that as a challenge. For one thing, he’s practiced law for 33 years — longer than any of the other candidates.

“What an appellate judge does is such a different kind of task from a trial judge,” Durio says. “Before I decided to run, I discussed it with a lot of different trial judges. Most of them felt my long years in private practice made me very well qualified for this race. A lot of what the Third Circuit does is reading, writing and analysis, and I think I’m reasonably good at that.”

The Opelousas native and LSU Law Center graduate initially planned a career in philosophy until the reality of having to make a living hit. That’s when he recognized that law was really “applied philosophy.”

After graduation, he went to work for Jones Walker law firm, and cut his teeth on the Louisiana First Use Tax case, which was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1983, Durio started a solo practice and then a partnership now known as Durio, McGoffin, Stagg & Ackermann. He has since represented clients ranging from personal injury to finance and medical malpractice.

Most recently, he won a high-profile Louisiana Supreme Court decision in Cannon v. Bertrand, ending the court’s practice of awarding minority corporate shareholders less per share than those belonging to minority shareholders.

Durio says he’s driven to serve on the Third Circuit because he wants to finish the last 20 years of his career in public service.

The attorney admits the court has had some difficulties in terms of having its decisions overturned, but he’s reluctant to offer any criticism. He says the court’s past volume of cases may be a key factor.

“To run for this position, you have to be willing to join a team, and the last thing I want to do is criticize the team’s performance before even joining it,” he says. “A lot of the judges elected recently have been working really hard to restore the quality of decisions, and I certainly want to help in that process.”

20100616-cover-0107
Like Keaty and Bouillion, Third Circuit scion Laborde
attended law school later in life.

Jeanne Laborde
Laborde has spent nearly all of her professional life immersed in the courts. At the age of 17, the Avoyelles native moved to Lafayette in 1980 and worked for the clerk of court while attending UL Lafayette.

When she graduated, she went to work as an abstractor, researching titles, leases and right-of-way throughout the state of Louisiana.

Laborde didn’t attend law school until 1993, when her husband went to work for Dow Chemical in Baton Rouge. She attended Southern University Law School, took care of the household and their three young children and continued her land and abstract work. She managed to graduate third in her class.

Her father is P.J. Laborde, a one-term legislator who retired from the Third Circuit in 1995 to start Laborde Law Firm, a family personal injury practice that also employs Laborde and her brother, David. She joined the firm after graduation and has represented clients in everything from divorces to federal Indian law.

“Of course my father influenced me,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in the history and the development of the law from very early on.”

Laborde’s campaign is off to a comparatively slow start. Her March campaign finance report indicates she has raised $2,200 in cash and in-kind contributions — more than half of that from herself and her mother. Former 16th Judicial District Judge Edward Delahoussaye III of Franklin is also listed as a contributor. But Laborde contends it’s still early in the race.

She declined comment on the recent performance of the Third Circuit, saying an evaluation of each individual judge’s record would prove more accurate. She is drawn to an appellate position simply because it will allow her to couple her love for research and her love and respect for the law. “If elected,” she says, “I will use my knowledge of the law and my independence to render fair and equitable opinions.”

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