A panel of judges on the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal on Wednesday upheld a district court’s ruling that ordered former Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to personally pay over $50,000 for failing to turn over fake subpoenas in response to a public records request in 2015 filed by lawyer Emily Washington of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center.

The panel also upheld the district court’s order that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office, now run by Jason Williams, must cover attorney’s fees for Washington — which the plaintiffs’ attorneys have previously said amount to about $135,000.

Jim Craig, who is the director of thel MacArthur Justice Center, and who represented Washington, said in a press release that the Fourth Circuit’s opinion “eviscerated the District Attorney’s attempt to weasel away from his obligations under the Public Records Law.” 

“The DA’s evasions and excuses made a mockery of the law,” Craig said, A custodian of public records is not allowed to play word games or concoct creative responses that block a requester like Ms. Washington from the records that she, as a member of the public, is entitled to see. These are the people’s records, not the private property of this DA or any other public official.”

In 2015, Washington had requested Article 66 subpoenas, which are used to compel witnesses in criminal cases to meet privately with prosecutors. Those are authorized by the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure, and require a judge to sign off on them. But the DA’s office told her that the request was too burdensome, and told her to request the records from the Clerk of Court. 

At the time, however,  Washington didn’t know that the DA’s office was also issuing fake subpoenas in order to pressure witnesses to appear for private meetings. Those documents were often marked “subpoena” and threatened jail time if the recipient didn’t comply. But they were fake. They were not authorized by a judge or issued by the Clerk of Court as the law requires.

Records of fake subpoenas would not have been kept by the Clerk of Court.

After the practice of using the so-called “DA subpoenas” was revealed by The Lens in 2017, MacArthur filed a suit against the DA’s Office, arguing that the fake subpoenas should have been turned over to Washington when she filed her initial request, given that they were used for the same purpose as the authorized Article 66 subpoenas. 

The DA’s office argued that despite the fact they had “subpoena” written on them, the fake subpoenas were in fact just “notifications,” and thus were not required to be turned over. 

Last year, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Ethel Julien ruled in favor of Washington. Cannizzaro’s administration appealed the ruling, but before arguments could be heard before the appellate panel, Williams was elected District Attorney. 

Williams had been a vocal critic of Cannizzaro’s practice of using fake subpoenas, and also for failing to release documents in a timely fashion after the practice was uncovered. But Williams declined to withdraw the appeal, and oral arguments were heard last month.

Hannah Lommers-Johnson, another attorney with MacArthur who represented Washington,  said that it was “puzzling and concerning that Jason Williams has continued to spend taxpayer money protecting Leon Cannizzaro’s reputation and pocketbook.”

She said she hopes Williams’ office accepts this ruling rather than appealing to the Louisiana Supreme Court. 

“We hope that this opinion closes the case and that Mr. Williams will refuse authorization for any further writs or Appeals,” she said. 

Through a spokesperson, Williams said he does not intend to appeal.

This story has been updated to include information from the DA’s office regarding their intention not to appeal.

Nicholas 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...