Note: This is the third 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 third candidate is Aylin Acikalin.
A native New Orleanian, Aylin Acikalin graduated from Alice Harte and Ben Franklin High School and obtained her law degree from Tulane University. Her father is a gastroenterologist from Turkey. A well-educated attorney who operates a family law and domestic violence law practice, Ms. Acikalin’s experience in the community as an organizer and activist plays a major role in her career.
Ms. Acikalin began her career working for U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, and then worked for the Bureau of Government Research – a private nonprofit dedicated to improving public policy and more effective use of public resources by local government. In that capacity, she exposed flaws in the funding scheme for the city’s school facilities. After Hurricane Katrina, Ms. Acikalin formed the Marlyville Neighborhood Association to advocate for her region – at a time when Mayor Ray Nagin was considering shrinking the city’s footprint.
Ms. Acikalin relocated to Florida for her husband’s work and helped raise their children. While serving as a caregiver, Ms. Acikalin also served as an active participant in her community; when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed, she led a community dialogue on the controversial Stand Your Ground laws.
When she moved back to New Orleans, Ms. Acikalin worked as legislative director for Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey. In that capacity, she helped establish the city’s living wage ordinance and the Equal Pay Advisory Committee. She also worked on rewriting the city’s Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance and firefighters’ pension fund.
Ms. Acikalin also has a praiseworthy history as a reformer within the Sewerage and Water Board, which shows an understanding of how poorly regulated utility companies like the Sewerage and Water Board make the housing crisis worse. In her capacity as legislative director, Ms. Acikalin pushed the legislature to give the New Orleans City Council oversight over the Sewerage and Water Board. “I think the Sewerage and Water Board needs to be under the fiscal oversight of the City Council,” Ms. Acikalin told Big Easy Magazine.
In order to avoid any appearance of impropriety, Ms. Acikalin has avoided pursuing endorsements from elected officials. Big Easy Magazine was impressed with her astute observation that First City Court has some jurisdiction over certain actions against the city and state government. As a result, Ms. Acikalin noted that endorsements from local government officials might cause conflict later on. Instead, she boasts a diverse pool of endorsements from community leaders, pastors, attorneys, and advocates.
Ms. Acikalin’s years of experience in domestic violence law would inform her administration of justice as a First City Court judge. She hopes to bring a trauma-informed care approach to the court and is working to propose legislation to expand the definition of domestic abuse under state law. As noted before, tenants who are victims of domestic violence have numerous housing protections, but tenants may not know about these statutes. Ms. Acikalin is confident that she would be able to identify victims who come before her bench and offer them the legal protections and dignity they deserve.
Ms. Acikalin also has laudable plans to make the courtroom more accessible to New Orleanians. Ms. Acikalin noted that there is “no reason” why her court could not hold hearings online for people who are unable to attend court in person. As the only candidate who is raising school-aged children, Ms. Acikalin appreciates that many people have difficulties when they have to go to court and is open to holding court at different hours to increase accessibility.
Drawing on her experience in state and federal courts across the country, Ms. Acikalin boasts an ability to implement a streamlined case management system. She hopes to put those policies into place should she be elected.
One measure she hopes to implement is a more effective pro bono system so that unrepresented litigants who desire counsel can have an attorney. “Our system of justice is dependent on who can access that justice,” Ms. Acikalin said. “In our court there is more room for access to justice. Southeast Louisiana Legal Services only has so much capacity.”
You are running for First City Court Section B. For what reasons do you want to serve as City Court judge?
This is a vacancy because a judge passed away. I knew the staff well and the late judge, Angélique Reed, and spent a lot of time with them. We thought that it would be a very good fit for me because of my public service background.
There are people who are mostly unrepresented, and I have the temperament and patience that is required in dealing with the public. I see it as more of a public service position.
What is your vocational background, as a lawyer, community member, and/or public servant?
I started my law career clerking for Judge Ramsey in 2004 when she was a judge in Civil District Court. We had just heard a bench trial on the Agriculture Street landfill cases. Then Katrina hit, and I stayed on the clerkship, and I had all of the boxes of evidence. We had to have status conferences at the Holiday Inn in Gonzales, while trying to get the court back up in running in New Orleans.
That makes me uniquely qualified to be a judge, particularly during this crisis, because we have to be able to work to be in constant communication with elected officials. At the time, we had emergency orders that were coming through that had to be dealt with even though we could not return to the city.
I would describe myself as a plaintiff’s attorney. I worked in the U.S. Senate for Senator Landrieu from 1999-2001. And I worked for the Bureau of Governor Research, a watchdog agency, for two years. In the meantime I took five years off to raise my kids, while we lived in Florida. I was very active in the local Junior League, and I established an organic food co-op there. I obtained my Florida bar license before returning to New Orleans. Around that time, Trayvon Martin was killed, and I organized a public forum with community leaders to discuss the Stand your Ground law in Florida, and I led that dialogue. In New Orleans, I worked for City Council. Then in 2018, I started my own law practice.
What principles, desires, or convictions have informed your decision to run for City Court Judge? In short – why do you want to hold the office?
I strongly believe in the ideals of our American Constitution and rule of law. Often, it is the judiciary who is the place of last resort for people who are being underrepresented by other branches of government. It is a place where you come, present your case, facts, and evidence. and our system of justice is dependent on who can access that justice. In our court there is more room for access to justice. Southeast Louisiana Legal Services only has so much capacity. I am committed in whatever role I have to increase that capacity, to increase the ability for attorneys to perform pro bono work for the litigants in First City Court.
We need to make sure people’s due process is respected, and the judiciary plays a role in informing the other branches of government, especially the legislature, as to what is working and what is not. I am interested in working with organizations like the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. to ensure they have the data that they can use to impact the legislator.
As a practitioner of law, and a litigant myself, often you hear lawyers say they aren’t going to do something, at risk of angering the judge. In my opinion, you put on your case and file the motions you are entitled to; I’m not going to be mad at someone for advocating for their client.
A judge’s role is to make sure that one party is not trampled by the other in the courtroom. I am not unwilling to rein in attorneys or litigants to keep them on track during the trial or hearing. An active judge can help move cases along, increase efficiency in the court system and reduce costs.
How can you ensure that all litigants are treated fairly in your courtroom and enjoy equal justice?
I have had experience translating motions for a client who spoke Mandarin and was fleeing a domestic violence situation. I speak Turkish, French, and English and would like to have the ability to offer translators.
I would like to increase access for sight and hearing impaired individuals. For example, the city council does not currently offer subtitles for their meetings.
I am the only candidate with school-aged children in the race, so I would be sensitive to litigants who have to manage hearings from home, hearings in the evening. I am managing two school-aged children from home and running a campaign, and that’s the reality we will be dealing with with COVID.
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?
Unfortunately, I am unable to comment on issues of policy and law.
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?
I cannot speak to that overall, but I think that our laws are more friendly toward the landlords, and that is a legislative issue, unfortunately. With Courtwatch, and encouraging access to public records, we can help advocates pinpoint the areas that need to be changed in the legislature. I am willing to work with those organizations to have an open court policy.
Do you believe that all tenants should have legal representation in eviction proceedings?
It is always more ideal to have an attorney. As a member of the judiciary, which is a leadership position, it is completely within my ability to give talks to law schools and firms and advocate for pro bono work in tenancy cases.
You can read more about Aylin Acikalin for Judge here.