This is Marie Williams’ fourth try to be a judge in New Orleans. She ran for a Civil District Court seat in 2004, Juvenile Court in 2010 and Second City Court in 2012, never winning more than 24 percent of the vote.
Now she faces another difficult race, for Criminal District Court’s Section D. She’s running against Judge Frank Marullo, a 40-year incumbent, and attorney Graham Bosworth, who has well-connected supporters and a much larger warchest.
This time around, Williams has thrust herself into the spotlight by participating in a media sting on Marullo, who she says offered her a job in exchange for getting out of the race.
Williams said she wasn’t sure she would run again.
“At one point I decided I was just done with politics,” she said in an interview with The Lens. She said she found that too often, politics in New Orleans and Louisiana was about having a recognizable name or knowing the right people.
“I’ve always wanted to serve the people, and people have always told me … ‘If you were in any other state, you’d have been a judge a long time ago,’” Williams said.
Williams has plenty of legal experience outside of the political realm, as an appointed administrative law judge for the state, staff attorney for ACORN’s ALERT Fair Housing Action Center and the Pro Bono Project, and a private attorney at her husband’s law firm.
But after representing defendants in Criminal District Court, she became convinced that she could be useful there.
Williams described a dysfunctional, disorganized courthouse: missing and inaccurate case files, questionable rulings on probable cause from the bench and prosecutors who “had no respect for anyone, even me.”
Although the Metropolitan Crime Commission concluded that Marullo’s court was better than average for the number of open cases and the amount of time it takes to them, his backlog was larger than the average. About 34% of the cases in his court were more than a year old in 2013.
Williams said she would run a tighter ship.
“These DAs, somebody needs to be a watchdog over them, make sure they’re doing their job right. Somebody needs to be a watchdog over defense attorneys, make sure they’re doing their job correctly. I think that that’s one of the things that’s not happening,” she said.
“As a judge, I’m going to run the court. You’re not going to run the court. I’m going to tell you what to do, how to do it, when to do it. You need to have evidence. If you don’t have it, you’re going to have a certain time. You will not wait a year to prepare a file.”
She said she would institute a staggered docket. Instead of scheduling every hearing at 8:30 or 9 a.m., which is how it’s done now, she would schedule cases at specific times.
“Cases get continued and continued and people are there waiting,” Williams said. “You can’t just make people sit there — attorneys — all day. I must say, our time is precious.”
She also complained that too many small cases are clogging the docket, particularly drug possession cases. Cases involving hard drugs should be moved to drug court and diversion programs rather than putting people in jail and trying them for felonies. Marijuana use generally shouldn’t even warrant an arrest, she said.
Those cases also fill cells at Orleans Parish Prison. Williams said she does not support a plan by Sheriff Marlin Gusman to build a new facility at the jail to house inmates with medical and mental health needs, as well as accommodate the jail’s general population. Another building, with a capacity of 1,438 beds, is under construction now.
“To me, that just says you’re anticipating that nothing’s going to change,” she said. “You’re just going to lock up more people.”
Williams said the best way to reduce the population at the jail is to restrict it to inmates facing major charges. For minor offenses, she would encourage the court’s magistrate judge and magistrate commissioners to set lower or non-financial bonds.
“A lot of these people can’t afford” high bonds, so they stay in jail. “We know that,” she said.
Still, she doesn’t believe the Vera Institute’s Pretrial Services program, which aims to reduce the jail’s population by helping judges set more appropriate bonds, is necessary. The city has budgeted more than $600,000 for the program this year; Williams said that money would be better spent in the court.
She criticized Criminal District Court judges’ use of the Judicial Expense Fund, generated through court fines and fees, to pay for expensive trips to legal conferences. NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune reported that in an 18-month period ending in June, the judges spent $75,000 on travel. Marullo’s tally, $11,074, was second-highest.
She said judges should have a daily allowance for expenses on those trips, “but I think there should be a cap.”
Williams was candid about why she decided to work with WDSU-TV to capture Marullo on a secret recording. She said Sonja Dedais, who identified herself as a Marullo operative, had been harassing her since she entered the race, at one point even calling Williams while she was attending to her son at the hospital.
“It just got to the point where I was intimidated, threatened, harassed,” Williams said. “While I’m in the hospital, I’m constantly getting calls from her: ‘The judge wants to meet with you. He wants to offer you a Municipal Court position.’”
Marullo later said that he attended the meeting believing that Williams had already decided on her own to drop out of the race.
Told of this, Williams responded, “He said I was coming to him to help him for his re-election? I don’t even know this man. … I wouldn’t even trust him with babysitting my chihuahua.
“Why would I come to you [Marullo], among everyone else, about getting out of the race?” she said. “That’s what really frustrates me because he’s saying I came to him. Nobody heard that on the tape.”