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The Advocate - 3 Seek High Court Seat

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Location: New Orleans, LA

The Advocate - 3 Seek High Court Seat

Appellate judges vie for 1st District bench

Allen M. Johnson, Jr.

Three state appellate judges are running for the Louisiana Supreme Court 1st District seat being vacated by Chief Judge Pascal Calogero, who will retire Dec. 31 after 36 years on the state's highest court.

The primary election is Oct. 4. A runoff, if needed, will be Nov. 4.

The annual salary is $131,009; the chief justice — the dean of the seven-member court — makes $143,815.

The 1st District includes all of St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes and parts of Orleans and Jefferson parishes.

Here is a closer look at the three candidates:

* ROLAND L. BELSOME — In 1996, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling in a dental malpractice case that has shadowed the legal career of Belsome.

"That decision was stinging," says Belsome, an appellate court judge hearing cases from Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes.

The old dental case wound has reopened since Belsome began running for the Supreme Court seat, and he says the court's decision (Case No. 95-C-1054) was based on "bad facts" supplied by an errant attorney and then-trial Judge Thomas Porteous, who is now a federal judge facing impeachment by Congress on perjury allegations and other misconduct charges.

"If (the Porteous scandal) doesn't vindicate me, I don't know what does," Belsome said.

In 1996, the high court agreed with Porteous, then a trial judge in 24th Judicial District Court of Jefferson Parish. Porteous awarded Belsome only $25,000 in legal fees, concluding that the attorney was — contrary to standards of professionalism for Louisiana lawyers — "uncommunicative with his client," a physician, who later fired him. "The central reason for the client's discharge (of Belsome) can best be characterized as nonfeasance," the high court ruled.

The Supreme Court awarded the lion's share of $206,000 in legal fees to the doctor's second attorney, but increased Belsome's share for work done to $61,800.

Today, Belsome says: "(The old case) has made me a better judge. I want to make sure everyone has their say in court (and) that the rules are applied evenly and fairly."

The judge said his campaign committee (headed by his mother and sister) recently recommended returning campaign contributions of unspecified amounts from several attorneys who may be facing allegations of misconduct.

"If anyone knows my values, it's my mother and my sister," he said.

With 30 days left before the Oct. 4 primary, Belsome had $93,777 on hand after spending $201,496 in a two-month period ending Aug. 25.

The court hears all appeals in death penalty cases. Belsome says the families of victims and the condemned alike can expect an impartial justice who is "swayed" only by the record of the case and arguments of law.

Belsome also pledges neutrality in disciplinary hearings involving other judges and attorneys, warning: "I will not tolerate any attorney taking advantage of his clients or the public."

Belsome is the father of two grown daughters, and is a founding member of Reconcile New Orleans, a culinary arts program for disadvantaged youths.

* GREG GUIDRY — Guidry, who prosecuted federal corruption cases for a decade in New Orleans, says he hopes his election to the high court will help change the poor image of the state's judiciary — and its business climate.

He says campaign contributions to judicial candidates undermine public confidence.

"I believe campaign contributions (to judges) — especially from attorneys — are problematic since they are the ones appearing in court," Guidry said.

He favors public financing as a reform step. Campaign committees should not accept contributions from people who are actively litigating cases, he said. Judges who have friendships with lawyers should "minimize" those social contacts, during those periods, he says.

With 30 days until the primary, Guidry's campaign had $294,120 on hand, after spending $154,034 in a two-month period ending Aug. 25.

His campaign raised $175,540 during that same period, including $90,012 in family loans and $16,088 in contributions from politician action committees.

Of death penalty cases, Guidry said he will render "a fair and honest evaluation of the law and the facts — and quick decisions."

"In criminal cases in particular, people need quick resolutions," he said.

Guidry said the court's disciplinary system for attorneys and judges must be "aggressively managed."

A Republican since age 18, he is a native of Harvey.

While attending LSU's law school, he was selected for the Law Review and the Order of the Coif, honors based on academic achievement.

In 1990, Guidry began 10 years of service as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans, where he received commendations for overseeing violent crime and drug cases.

He is married to the former Cathy Thompson, a nurse, and they have two children. He also raises quarter horses and beef cattle on a family-owned farm in St. Tammany Parish. He lives in the village of Nine Mile Point, on the West Bank of the Mississippi River.

* JAMES E. "JIMMY" KUHN — Kuhn, of Ponchatoula, is the only candidate in the race who has ever changed political parties.

"I've always been conservative, pro-family and pro-life; but like most people in Louisiana, I was raised Democrat," Kuhn said. "Political party has never played a role in my ability to be a judge," he said.

"As time went on, it became more apparent to me that the Republican Party best represented my conservative philosophy."

In June 2003, he switched to the GOP, campaign spokeswoman Betty LeBlanc said. The following year, Kuhn was re-elected to the 1st Circuit without opposition.

Practicing law for 35 years, Kuhn has served on the 1st Circuit since his election in 1994, participating in nearly 2,700 decisions.

The court's jurisdiction covers 16 parishes, including East Baton Rouge.

If elected to the Supreme Court, Kuhn says, he vows to protect violent-crime victims "to the fullest extent of the law."

He also says he will "strictly" apply ethics rules for fellow judges and attorneys.

On the matter of campaign contributions for judicial campaigns, Kuhn has a clear message for insurance companies and lobbyists for other concerns often represented in Supreme Court cases: "I have always believed that when you give me a contribution it is because you believe in my philosophy, not because I believe in yours.

"These interests will never have any influence in my court. I strongly believe in the principle that justice is not for sale."

With one month to go before the primary, Kuhn's campaign reported $92,716 (including $6,000 in PAC money) — after spending $105,714 during a two-month period.

Kuhn also has the perspective of a defendant in a civil case. In 2004, Judge Janice Clark of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge ruled that Kuhn owed $165,000 plus legal interest to Southeast Investments LLC of St. Tammany Parish.

Kuhn says the debt stems from a loan he guaranteed for his child.

"The amount owed is under discussion," Kuhn responded. In court filings, the plaintiffs in the case say Kuhn has paid only $5,000 since Clark's ruling.

Kuhn said he is "working toward a correct, just solution."

A graduate of Southeastern Louisiana University and Loyola University Law School, Kuhn also served in the Army National Guard, where he studied to be a tank commander.

He is married to Cheryl Aucoin Kuhn. They have twin adult children.

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