Two recently retired Criminal District Court judges and the New Orleans City Council President qualified to run for Orleans Parish District Attorney on Wednesday at the courthouse on Tulane and Broad, but there was still no word on whether the current DA, Leon Cannizzaro, would seek to hold onto his job.

A spokesperson for Cannizzaro said he “intends to announce his plans for this race before the end of qualifying Friday afternoon.” 

The race has become a focal point for criminal justice reform advocates, who have been critical of Cannizzaro’s office as being overly aggressive and, at times, unethical. They have cited his prosecutors’ use of fake subpoenas and Cannizzaro’s defense of material witness warrants, which are used to arrest witnesses and crime victims for allegedly failing to cooperate with prosecutors. Cannizzaro, for his part, has cast some efforts to lower the jail population as “a grand social experiment espoused by sheltered academics and naïve politicians.” 

The Orleans Parish District Attorney is elected to a six-year term. The two former judges who qualified on Wednesday were Arthur Hunter and Keva Landrum.  The City Council president is Jason Williams, who is running against the backdrop of a recent federal indictment on charges of tax fraud.

Outside the courthouse on Wednesday after qualifying for DA, Williams, who pleaded not guilty earlier this month and has sought to have the charges dismissed, reiterated to reporters his belief that the indictment was politically motivated and a distraction from the real issues. 

“All of this has just been a distraction — it has not been a particularly creative distraction, it’s the same thing they did in the Mayor’s race — and it is something that’s just old-school politics,” he said. “I’m not dismayed by it, it’s only got me fighting harder.”

Attorneys for the federal government in the case failed to file an opposition to Williams’ motion to dismiss by the time it was due on Tuesday. U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman, who is presiding over the case, gave them until Friday to file their motion and explain why it was late. (The government filed its response late Wednesday afternoon.)

Williams — who ran unsuccessfully for DA in 2008, the year Cannizzaro was first elected to the office —  is running as a progressive hoping to stem the tide of mass incarceration, and said on Wednesday that his administration would focus on more equitable funding between the DA’s office and the public defenders, bail reform, drug and mental health treatment outside of the criminal justice system, and looking back at the legacy of unethical prosecution in New Orleans that have led to wrongful convictions.

Arthur Hunter, who worked as an NOPD officer in the 1980s before becoming a judge in 1997, said in an interview with The Lens on Wednesday that if elected as DA, he would expand the use of drug and mental health courts, as well as diversion programs — which allow certain defendants to have their charges dropped if they complete a rehabilitation program. Hunter also wants to implement restorative justice programs for Juvenile Court, focus on community outreach, and stop prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana charges. 

But he also pushed back against any perception of him as a “liberal judge,” and said he made a distinction between violent crimes and those stemming from drug addiction and mental illness.

“I’m not a liberal judge,” he said. “When it comes to crimes of violence I’m not a liberal judge. I’ve sent more than 21 people to Angola for life sentences.  I’ve presided over three death penalty trials. Crimes of violence with victims, I take seriously. Crimes dealing with mental health, dealing with drugs, I want those people going on a different path, to become better.”

Keva Landrum was elected judge in 2008, and prior to that served briefly as interim DA when Eddie Jordan resigned in 2007. She wasn’t available for comment on Wednesday, but in a campaign video posted to her website she discussed the need to address the “twin horrors of violence and mass incarceration.”

“As a former judge and prosecutor, I know the importance of prosecuting violent criminals, and building relationships with victims and witnesses,” she said. “But as a New Orleans native, I’ve seen the toll that an unfair and unequal system can have on our families and our neighborhoods. “

It remains to be seen what other candidates may enter the race before qualifying ends on Friday afternoon. 

Criminal District Court Judge Paul Bonin has also been rumored to be considering a run for District Attorney, but as of Wednesday afternoon he had neither qualified for his judgeship nor the DAs race. Bonin could not be reached for comment. 

Defense attorney Gary Wainwright announced in a Facebook video earlier this year, on April 20, that he was forming an exploratory committee to run for DA. Wainwright has cast himself as a progressive and a “marijuana re-legalization activist.” 

Wainwright posted the video again last week, but when asked by text message on Wednesday whether he had made any decisions, Wainwright said he was “Still in the library thinking.”

In his last two campaigns for DA, Cannizzaro filed to run on the first day of qualifying, according to records from the Louisiana Secretary of State. Reached by phone, Billy Schultz, who has worked as a political consultant for Cannizzaro, said he didn’t have any information about the DA’s plans. 

“Stay tuned,” he said, “that’s all I can tell ya.”

This story was updated to reflect the federal government’s late afternoon response to Jason Williams’ motion to dismiss his indictment.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...