Cantrell and Jupiter win Orleans Parish judge races

Orleans Parish voters elected Criminal District Court veteran Harry Cantrell as that court’s magistrate judge Saturday, while selecting Steven Jupiter for a seat on the Traffic Court bench.

Turnout was a little over 8 percent.

In the race to replace Judge Gerard Hansen, who has held the magistrate judge’s post for nearly four decades, Cantrell, a longtime magistrate commissioner at criminal court, prevailed over Mark Vicknair, a former public defender.

Cantrell received 57 percent of the votes in the runoff election.

The magistrate judge’s primary function is to set bonds for criminal defendants, although the judge and four appointed commissioners are also frequently called upon to review and sign police warrants.

The chief issue in the election was the degree to which the two candidates support some type of “pre-trial services” program, a screening process aimed at determining which arrestees should have to pay stiff bonds and which should be let out of jail on low or no bonds while awaiting trial.

The idea is to reduce the number of jail inmates, thus saving the city money, and to avoid needlessly disrupting the lives of those accused of minor crimes.

Both Cantrell and Vicknair said they support the concept.

However, Cantrell would not elaborate on whether he feels the existing program, run by a nonprofit group called the Vera Institute for Justice, is working properly, while Vicknair was a strong backer of the program.

Cantrell’s victory means he will continue doing more or less the same job he has done as an appointed magistrate commissioner, though at $130,000 a year, his salary will go up by about $55,000.

He was known as the stiffest bond-setter at Magistrate Court while he sat as a commissioner for 14 years before stepping down to run for the judgeship.

Jupiter defeated Clint Smith for the Traffic Court seat, taking 54 percent of the votes.

Jupiter and Smith, both making their first bid for public office, previously had beaten out a half-dozen other candidates in the primary.

Jupiter, who lives in Algiers, campaigned on his lifelong roots in the city, in contrast to Smith, who moved to New Orleans as an adult.

Jupiter described the court’s practices as “a money grab” and lamented the disorganization and dysfunction at the courthouse. He promised to try to usher the court into the modern era, with an electronic filing system and video conferencing capabilities.

He also pledged to restore the public’s confidence in the court, long plagued by accusations of corruption and incompetence.

Traffic Court judgeships have long been attractive to politicians because of their part-time hours and six-figure salaries. Four judges share two courtrooms, meaning each sits on the bench only half the day. They are allowed to maintain private legal practices.

Amid a growing call to shrink the ranks of the city’s judiciary, both the Bureau of Governmental Research and Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux have suggested eliminating the very Traffic Court seat the candidates were fighting over.

Both runoff contenders pledged to keep only a small private practice and to work full-time as a judge, supplementing their time on the bench with community outreach and implementing plans to improve efficiency at the court.

The primary election turned nasty, with a flurry of attack ads, including one that questioned a defeated contender’s sexuality. However, Jupiter and Smith stayed out of the fray, and the runoff battle between them remained quiet.