…because he’ll never look for it there.
This has been known ever since Fields, who failed the bar exam at least three times (some say it was four, we’re sure it was at least three) and who was disqualified as a candidate for the state senate in District 15 because he failed to establish residency for a year in that district before running for the seat – proving that he’s a politician and not a jurist, became a judge. With apologies to Janice Clark Fields is the judge every lawyer in Baton Rouge knows has the least understanding of, or regard for, the law in the 19th Judicial District Court.
So when the St. George mandamus writ case drew Fields as a judge, it was easily observable that he was going to deny the writ.
Judge Wilson Fields on Monday tossed a lawsuit filed by city of St. George organizers, saying the Registrar of Voters Office properly counted signatures on the group’s incorporation petition.
Understand that as a legal matter that writ of mandamus is difficult not to enforce. At issue are several factors…
1. There is nothing in state law which specifies a date on which someone must be registered to vote in order to sign an incorporation petition; the signer simply must be an “elector” in the affected area at the time they signed the petition.
2. More than enough people who were “electors” in what would be St. George signed the incorporation petition to meet the requirement of 17,859 signatures in order to trigger an election.
3. The Registrar of Voters, headed by someone who has a personal – we’re even told it’s a familial, though we haven’t confirmed that yet – relationship with the lawyer hired by the city of Baton Rouge to defeat the petition, threw out some 1,723 signatures on the petition on the basis that the signers were registered to vote in St. George after an arbitrary date not supported in state law.
Given those three facts, there is really only one course supported by logic – namely, that the mandamus writ filed by the St. George organizers seeking to certify the petition and submit it to the governor for the purposes of an election being called be signed off on by Fields today.
Which he refused to do, because his political masters would not be pleased by his doing so.
Fields’ ruling is going to be appealed, as many of his rulings are. This case isn’t dead by a long shot.
UPDATE: “Let me show you how we do things in Baton Rouge.”
UPDATE #2: The Times-Picayune article on the hearing has a bit more on what happened in Fields’ courtroom…
But some of the signatures tossed out by the registrar’s office were from people who had registered to vote after Oct. 20, the date the first petition was submitted, but registered and signed during the second wave. St. George supporters say those signatures should have counted, while the registrar’s office and opponents say they shouldn’t have. St. George organizers say they’ve identified at least 285 signatures they believe should have been counted.
Ultimately, Fields agreed with lawyers representing the registrar’s office and St. George opposition group Residents Against the Breakaway, who argued that it wasn’t appropriate for the St. George organizers to bring forward a petition for writ of mandamus.
Attorney Celia Cangelosi, representing the registrar’s office, said a writ of mandamus is only supposed to be used when a public official fails to do the most basic, “ministerial” duties of their job. Registrar Steve Rayborn and his office did their jobs, Cangelosi said — they went through all of the signatures and verified them. The matter being disputed is a question of judgement and decision-making — not something for a writ of mandamus, she said.
But Daniel Redmann, attorney representing the St. George organizers, pointed to a state statute that he argues indicates the mandamus was the right method to use: “Except as otherwise provided by law, the duties of the registrar are ministerial in character and may be compelled by mandamus,” the statute reads.
The point of a writ of mandamus is to force a public official to enforce the law as it’s written. When the registrar acts outside the law, which Raborn’s office did by throwing out the signatures based on a stricture not provided by statute, there is no question that’s a proper forum for a mandamus writ.
This looks an awful lot like reversible error, and there is a very likely successful appeal coming.
UPDATE #3: Upon some reflection, an appeal might not be such a good idea. Why? Money, for one thing. But timing, for another.
The problem with Fields’ ruling is that it’s not on the merits of the case. Fields ruled that a mandamus writ was not a proper remedy. So you’d have to appeal that ruling, and it would likely go all the way up to the Supreme Court, which would take months and a ton of cash, and then you’d be back in Fields’ court to get a ruling on the merits.
Which as everybody knows would result in a legally-defective ruling against St. George, on the basis of something stupid like St. George relying on the Registrar’s office telling them the arbitrary Oct. 20, 2014 deadline for voter registration forfeits St. George’s ability to challenge that deadline. Or whatever.
Then you’d have months and months more of an appeal process.
And by the time you finally got the legal system to spit out an incorporation election for St. George, you’d likely be either past the two-year prescription on a new petition or pretty close to it.
It might be a better idea to start over, using the work already done on the St. George petition as a base to prepare for a second petition drive starting in May of 2017, and broaden the effort to develop a base of fundraising and even work on creating a culture in St. George. Town meetings on what a city of St. George might look like, fleshing out the policies that could dominate such a city and presenting a more understandable and all-encompassing vision for a new city, perhaps a St. George fair each spring or fall, and so on.
They’ve already got some 22,000 signatures. Some of them might have been invalidated, rightly or wrongly, but 22,000 people is a pretty good consumer base from which to start as a revamped effort is prepared.
And maybe going for the whole enchilada in South Baton Rouge isn’t the right way to go. Maybe the effort should focus on a few adjoining neighborhoods where St. George support is the strongest, and get the new city formed in those as quickly as possible when the two-year moratorium expires. Once the city is founded, it can annex as much of the unincorporated area adjoining it as the people want to see.
Either way, there will be a St. George in East Baton Rouge Parish – or a New Richmond, or a Tigerville, or whatever the name might be. The way this thing was handled by the Powers That Be downtown has made that a sure thing – whether this current effort bears fruit in the courts or whether it takes a second bite at the apple.