There are few things as important as family to voters in America. Absolutely, any election will ultimately alter circumstances surrounding family issues, from health care to civil rights, with impacts far beyond Thanksgiving Dinner conversations. On the local level, in the Judicial Department, these matters can be treated much more directly. This is a place where votes count more so.
Marie Williams is running for Judge of Civil District Court Division E in the city of New Orleans, which means she could potentially judge over many a custody battle or intervention. I asked her a series of questions regarding the current state of families in town, talking with the people, the gravity of making heavy decisions, and, of course, compassion:
Bill Arceneaux: Your campaign platform for Civil District Court Division E focuses heavily on family, with custody issues being front and center. As an activist and an administrative judge, how do you feel about the health state of New Orleans families?
Marie Williams: Many families that appear in CDC who cannot afford an attorney cannot also afford health care; they rely on the state for health care assistance. The people who cannot afford health care cannot afford to file or appear in court. They must wait like thousands of others to have access to justice and thus access to health care. Until money is used for the poor in the communities in New Orleans, we will have problems with quality education, health care, fair housing, and access to justice in the legal system.
BA: What can you do, as a judge, to change policy and fight for citywide reform that will better the lives of everyone?
MW: The problem is that so many people cannot afford an attorney and are underrepresented in the legal system. Therefore, I will work with legal aid agencies, The Pro Bono Project, and the bar association for firms and attorneys to make it mandatory to take at least one or more civil cases on a Pro Bono basis; just like it is mandatory to take CLE’s. This will help eliminate the enormous backlog of legal aid cases or cases that are not brought to court because the individual or family cannot afford an attorney. When I left The Bono Project to be appointed as an administrative law judge, there were 1,980 cases that did not have an attorney.
BA: On your website, you’ve quoted Albert Einstein’s “No difference between large and small problems” line. Does this mean that each case will be treated the same, applying the same amount of critical thinking to everyone who comes before you? How important are empathy and compassion when making a decision?
MW: It definitely means that each case and individual who appears in court represented by an attorney or pro se will be treated the same. There will be no favoritism and everyone’s case will be treated equally on its merits. Knowing how to deal with those who will come before you is important because you need to empathize with the people and their situation representing them to know how to rule properly on a case. You need experience in handling cases of people who will come before the court. Also, compassion is important to a case. Compassion is important to law because the judge must be able to understand what others go through, their lives and what is at stake for others, or seeing the rights of others from the inside. Also having gone through, or being aware of similar experiences as others experience them makes the judge use not only the law to make decisions but an understanding of real-life situations.
BA: “Make Family Court Less Frightening” is very powerful and evocative. Have you conversed with residents who’ve gone through the system? What would you say are the changes in the process they would like represented and implemented?
MW: Yes, I have conversed with many residents who have gone through the legal system, and they do not have nice things to say about the judges or judicial system. The biggest problem I hear about are judges being incompetent; no compassion, preferential treatment to individuals with lawyers, and cases moving slowly. Electing a judge who has experience in the seat they are running for and not electing people based upon who can spend the most money on a campaign and moving the docket is important to me. I would not allow an attorney to continue cases for years and ensure the time deadlines will be followed.
BA: You have a community record that rivals even D.C. advocates. If there is one thing you would like the people of New Orleans to know about you and how being a judge would benefit them, what would it be?
MW: I have used my legal degree to not only gain experience in most legal practices and courts to represent people who don’t have access to justice, and having been active in the community gives me an ear and knowledge of the cases in the community that need to be heard before a competent judge. Because of my experience, I exhibit proper judicial temperament, patience, open-mindedness, courtesy, tact, courage, punctuality, firmness, understanding, compassion, humility and common sense. These qualities will make me a fair and good judge for all the people.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Rotten Tomatoes, Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations and Occupy. Be sure to check out his other candidate profiles, film reviews, and other work here.