Big Easy Magazine Interviews Candidates for First City Court Judge: Sara Lewis


Courtesy of Sara Lewis for Judge.

Note: This is the second in a series of profiles and interviews on the candidates for First City Court Judge, which is on the ballot for Orleans Parish on July 11. First City Court judges hear evictions and small claims disputes for all residents of the east bank of New Orleans. 

We were only able to speak to three of the five candidates. Due to the remote nature of the interviews, Big Easy Magazine conducted a questionnaire and a phone conversation with each of the candidates.

The second candidate is Sara Lewis.


Background.

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Sara Lewis is a first-generation American who came to New Orleans for law school and found a home here. Ms. Lewis has presence and recognition in the community, however, that is enviable even by native New Orleanian standards. She is on the board of many local organizations that seek to empower low-income residents. Ms. Lewis’s experience as a board member of Energy Wise Alliance demonstrates an awareness of how utility costs play into the city’s affordability crisis – a reality that any First City Court judge comes to terms with every day.

We were impressed with Ms. Lewis’s experience working under Judge Bernadette D’Souza in a domestic violence externship. Judge D’Souza is a leader in domestic violence law, and her family law experience is held in high esteem by the legal community. This is significant, because any eviction court judge must be able to discern when a tenant is a victim of domestic violence, in order to invoke the protective statutes that exist to keep them in their homes.

Ms. Lewis appreciates the dire housing situation that tenants face in this moment. She read the white paper recently issued by Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, that shows how black women face the biggest risk of eviction in New Orleans, especially during the COVID crisis. Although judges are constrained by the Louisiana Civil Code, Ms. Lewis has come up with ways to help with this crisis – by making the eviction laws and tenant resources more accessible to those who come before her court.

Notably, Ms. Lewis expressed a strong desire to increase the functions of First City Court to include a mediation team. Ms. Lewis has a certificate in mediation from Tulane Law. She noted that the Louisiana Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission is seeking to bring free mediation to courts, and as judge she would seek to bring community mediation with pro bono lawyers to First City Court.

Sara Lewis has a deep respect for the role of City Court. “Most of our residents live paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “Some people think that lower-value claims courts are less important because of the dollar amount, but for the people who come to court, this is everything to them. This is a place where you can go so you’re not fighting your neighbor, and you will be treated the way the law says.”

Courtesy of Sara Lewis for Judge

You are running for First City Court Section B. For what reasons do you want to serve as City Court judge?

I’m running for Judge because the people who come into First City Court – more often than not without a lawyer – need a Judge who listens, who is prepared, and who will take the time to explain their options. People in crisis – like residents facing an eviction – need to understand their rights and need to be fully heard. I’m the daughter of immigrants and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. I learned to be patient and to listen while growing up translating for my relatives.  I speak fluent Spanish and Italian. As Judge, these skills will go a long way in helping people find solutions to their problems.

What is your vocational background, as a lawyer, community member, and/or public servant? 

Prior to entering private practice, I interned for Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Fredericka Wicker. I also served as a domestic violence extern at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (formerly New Orleans Legal Assistance Clinic), a non-profit organization providing free, civil legal aid to low-income people in six offices, across 22 parishes throughout southeast Louisiana.

I’ve been in private practice for over a decade at a law firm where I am now a partner, Wall, Bullington & Cook, LLC.  I’ve represented clients on both sides of a conflict, in courts across the state, consisting of mainly civil, commercial litigation and oil and gas related disputes, as well as criminal defense.  I’ve handled civil and criminal jury trials in state and federal courts across Louisiana.

In my law practice I’m committed to serving clients from all walks of life and to that end I’ve worked with my law partner, Guy Wall, on cases defending indigent criminal defendants through the Criminal Justice Act Panel. 

Volunteer and Community Activities:

  • JNOLA Board Member, the Jewish Federation’s next generation organization for community service, educational and social engagement, and professional networking. 
  • Energy Wise Alliance Board Member, which empowers low income Louisianans to save money through energy education. 
  • Luke’s House Clinic, Former Board Member, one of the few places in New Orleans for free medical care for all who enter.

Organizational Affiliations and Memberships:

  • Association of Women Attorneys, LA Bar Association, New Orleans Bar Association, American Bar Association, and Professional Landmen’s Association of New Orleans.

What principles, desires, or convictions have informed your decision to run for City Court Judge?

As a practicing civil litigator, I’ve represented both tenants and landlords in lease disputes and helped resolve their conflicts. I’ve served on the board of Luke’s House Clinic, one of the only free health clinics in the city, where I volunteered as a translator for Spanish-speaking patients.  I’ve worked with JNOLA and the Jewish Federation on civil rights initiatives and represented indigent criminal defendants. My experiences serving and working with people from all walks of life will help me as a judge to be fair, and that includes checking my own unconscious biases. 

How can you ensure that all litigants are treated fairly in your courtroom and enjoy equal justice? 

My goal is to create a courtroom where every conflict is resolved by the ruling principle of liberty and justice for all – no matter their political affiliation, their salary level, their gender, their race, their religion, the citizenship status, or otherwise. A judge who truly listens can accomplish this, and that is the kind of judge I will be. 

Do you believe that eviction courts should have remained closed until August 24, keeping in line with the federal CARES Act, given our current pandemic? Why?

Keeping vulnerable people in their homes during a national crisis should be a top priority for our policymakers. The timeframe for freezing evictions is just one piece of that puzzle. Judges must remain independent so we can be trusted to apply the law fairly when the time comes for judicial proceedings to begin again.

Over 50 percent – at least 53 percent – of New Orleans residents are lessees, rather than homeowners. While appreciating that your role is to apply the law rather than to write it, do you think that tenants are given a fair shake in eviction proceedings currently? 

If it were up to me, every resident facing an eviction would have a lawyer representing them. We have almost twice the national average eviction rate – 5.2%, and it is even more alarmingly higher in neighborhoods where people of color live. In Black neighborhoods, one in four renters experienced a court-ordered eviction over the course of three years, compared to 1 in 24 in predominantly white areas.  Beyond the obvious of causing homelessness and exacerbating the poverty cycle, this hurts our children’s shot at success, causes mental health issues, and can lead to domestic violence.  As judge, I can’t pass laws, but I can ensure that everyone facing an eviction in my courtroom knows their rights, and has every opportunity to assert them. 

Do you believe that all tenants should have legal representation in eviction proceedings?

The benefit of legal counsel in any legal proceeding is undeniable, and even more critical when you are talking about fundamental rights. If it were up to me, all tenants would have the benefit of legal counsel if they are facing eviction. Unfortunately, that’s an issue for legislators, not the judicial branch.

What can you do as a judge to ensure that an eviction proceeding does not prevent low income tenants from obtaining future housing?

I can provide resources, information, and advice. As Judge, I can educate tenants facing eviction on their rights, and on services available for low income residents facing housing issues. Organizations like Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, where I worked on domestic violence issues under Judge Bernadette D’Souza prior to her election, are available to help these vulnerable people.

Do you believe that the doctrine of judicial control grants judges discretion to award a tenant additional time to move? Do you think any other judicial doctrines or legal principles operate to that effect? Why or why not?

The law is very specific in this instance. Louisiana Civil Code article 4732 requires the judge to grant an eviction “immediately” if the landlord has met the legal burden. A tenant has the right to appeal, which can afford them more time. As judge, it’s my job to apply the law, but also make sure litigants know their rights.

Do you believe that the doctrine of judicial control grants judges discretion to require a payment plan? Do you think any other judicial doctrines or legal principles operate to that effect? Why or why not?

The doctrine of judicial control does not allow a judge to create new remedies beyond what is established in the law. As stated above, Louisiana Civil Code article 4732 requires the judge to grant an eviction “immediately” if the landlord has met the legal burden. A tenant has the right to appeal, which can afford them more time. As judge, it’s my duty to apply the law, but also make sure litigants know their rights and have every opportunity to assert them.

We appreciate that City Court handles disputes of up to $25,000 and is not merely an eviction court. Naturally, housing is one of the most salient issues to your electorate, and people don’t generally want to ask your thoughts on the Code of Civil Procedure. That being said, if you wanted to add anything about your administration of justice in other matters, feel free to do so. 

One of my goals is to establish a courtroom and docket that is a model of efficient, effective use of taxpayer dollars. Every public servant should act as a fiduciary of taxpayer dollars and every judge has a responsibility to provide swift access to justice. As judge, I will be on schedule, prepared, and productive; and I will staff my chambers with dedicated, competent professionals. 

Filing fees in Louisiana courts are notoriously high and are often a bar to pro se litigants. What can you do to make the justice system accessible to all people regardless of income? 

Filing fees are set by the State Legislature, and judges must remain independent on policy matters. But, a judge can advocate for improvements to the judicial system before the Legislature, and I will never hesitate to speak out about improving access to the system for pro se litigants. Additionally, I’d like to establish a pro bono mediation system, similar to an existing program in Baton Rouge Family Court and Baton Rouge City Court, that would give litigants free access to mediation services to help resolve their conflicts without the expense of litigation and trial. 

Currently, even in forma pauperis parties cannot waive their recordation fees at the Offices of Conveyances. This has significant legal ramifications for tenants who are in danger of losing their houses to a third party sale. What can you do, if anything, to make recordation more accessible to all residents? 

Recordation fees are set by the State Legislature, and judges must remain independent on policy matters. But, a judge can advocate for improvements to the judicial system before the Legislature, and I will never hesitate to speak out about improving access, including with respect to recording leases at the Office of Conveyances. 

What other skills, experiences, and backgrounds do you have that make you the right candidate for this job? 

I’m an experienced civil litigator with a successful law practice and clients who rely on me in tough times. My commitment to our community is evident in the time and energy I have spent volunteering with Luke’s House Clinic, JNOLA, and the Jewish Federation. I have been a translator for Spanish speaking patients at Luke’s House Clinic, a free clinic located in Central City, where I also served on the board for many years. I’m currently a board member of JNOLA, and we have worked with the Jewish Federation on projects to improve the Jewish communities’ support of racial justice issues. My law partner, Guy Wall, and I, serve as counsel for indigent criminal defendants, under the Federal Criminal Justice Act.  I believe these experiences will help me as a judge, enriching my decision-making process, ensuring fuller, more informed decisions, by taking into account the life experiences of the citizens being judged and served, and making sure I treat every litigant with respect and dignity. 


You can read more about Sara Lewis for Judge here.

You can read our other candidate profiles here.

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