The election on November 3 will be unlike any New Orleans residents have seen before. An unprecedented number of current and former public defenders are on the ballot vying for judicial seats. These positions are often filled by prosecutors, which unfortunately means that few judges have worked with defendants or have witnessed firsthand their experiences with the system. It is rare for public defenders to run in judicial races, but that is changing this year across the country and right here in New Orleans.
Of the seven public defense attorneys who are running, three in particular have deep ties to the juvenile sphere. Meg Garvey is a former managing director of LCCR running for Municipal Court Judge-Section A. Derwyn Bunton is former managing director of LCCR’s predecessor organization, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), running for Criminal Court Judge-Section E. And Teneé Felix, a current staff attorney at LCCR, has added her name to the ballot for Juvenile Court Judge-Section F.
When asked about their decision to run, one overwhelming theme among all three candidates is clear: they wish to bring humanity and compassion back into the courtroom. Having direct experience in New Orleans juvenile public defense, and visions for a safer and healthier New Orleans, these three candidates are keenly aware of what children in the New Orleans’ justice system face.
At LCCR, Meg helped develop the holistic juvenile defense team model that has become the cornerstone of our direct work with system-involved kids. In her eyes, “people should not need to prove their humanity to a judge.” She is “sick of seeing judges act like bullies” and thinks municipal court, where misdemeanors are handled, will be a great place to begin reform at the heart of the problem. She believes in the importance of helping people remove themselves from the system and move forward with their goals, especially young people.
Meg’s commitment as a prospective judge is to remove the obstacles and inefficiencies that plague families moving through municipal court, and operate so that the system is not profiting off of people. She adds that she will accommodate work and school schedules to ensure that kids are not missing school for court dates.
Derwyn too has plans to hold citizens accountable in criminal court while bringing humanity back into the system. This means he won’t turn a blind eye to legal injustices that are presently tolerated by the court. In his words: “My top priority is to bring equity, fairness, and justice back into our broken court system.”
Derwyn started his career at the forefront of juvenile legal reform in New Orleans before becoming the director of Orleans Public Defenders. Although in criminal court he will only face kids if the District Attorney decides to prosecute them as adults, he has knowledge of adolescent behavior and recognizes that adult consequences should not be handed to kids before their decision-making abilities have been fully developed.
In juvenile court, Teneé says she will fight for the youth of New Orleans without relying on failed strategies of the past. Having been a staff attorney with LCCR since 2009, she has been a witness to the current injustices that New Orleans’ youth face in the system. She wishes for the courts to hold kids accountable in ways that are developmentally appropriate.
Teneé’s first priority as a prospective juvenile judge is to treat kids like kids. As the mother of an 8-year-old son, she communicates the importance of treating every child in the justice system the way one would want to treat their own children. Her plan is to provide resources for families so they feel supported through the court process. She wants kids and their families to know that, as a juvenile judge, “I will not give up on them.”
For voters interested in judicial reform, this year’s election is a historic moment and one that could restructure the entire make-up of our court system. The wave of current and former public defenders who are running for judicial positions each have a vision for moving their perspective to the other side of the bench. While LCCR does not endorse any specific candidates, we are hopeful that the new crop of judges who take office will treat kids like kids, preserve fair justice regardless of defendants’ race or class, and maintain awareness of the trauma our city’s children face before making decisions for kids.
To learn more about where the District Attorney and Juvenile Court candidates stand on issues of children in the justice system, check out the Platform for Youth Justice.