By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany news bureau
SLIDELL – There have been dozens of elections for judge in the 22nd Judicial Court over the years, but none has ever seen an African American vying for the seat.
Slidell’s Reggie Laurent has decided to change that.
Laurent qualified for the special election on Oct. 14 and is facing Alan Zaunbrecher for the unexpired term of Judge Allison Penzato, who resigned the position after winning a seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Laurent has openly stated that he believes “it is time” for an African American to be on the 22nd Judicial District Court, one that has grown over the years to now have 12 judgeships covering St. Tammany and Washington parishes.
“I want to add a new dimension to the court,” he said. “I’m a native African American who has lived my entire life in St. Tammany Parish and I exceed the standards to be a judge. It’s time for this and I am ready.”
Laurent has been a lawyer for 31 years, including time as an assistant city attorney for the New Orleans Police Defense, serving as its chief legal counsel the final three years from 1987 to 1994. Then he was named the first African American prosecutor for the city of Slidell in 2010, a position he still holds.
“I believe we need the diversity in culture on the court,” he stated. “Sixty percent of the criminal defendants who come to the 22nd Judicial Court are black and it only seems fair to have a black judge in one of the seats.
“I think it would do a lot for harmony in our parish to have at least one black judge on the court,” Laurent added.
Zaunbrecher has a strong background of experience himself, working as a lawyer for 38 years, including time as an assistant district attorney in the 22nd Judicial Court where he handled criminal and civil cases. He declined to comment on the specific issue brought up by Laurent and said he only wants to focus on his own experience and background.
“I have a policy of not commenting on statements made by an opponent as long as they aren’t lies that someone says about me, which I would respond to,” he said.
“Additionally, Canon 7 of the La. Code of Judicial Conduct requires judicial candidates to refrain from commenting on any issue that might indicate a pre-conceived position or lack of complete partiality on pending or potential legal issues,” he said.
Zaunbrecher said the person elected should simply be the most qualified candidate and he had plenty to say about why he believed he was the person who should be elected.
“I have the breadth of experience for this position. I have extensive experience as a mediator and arbitrator through my work representing insurance cases and I dealt with criminal cases as an assistant D.A. I have done exactly what a judge does—assess credibility, listen to both sides, decide a case and write an opinion,” he noted. “I’ll match my judicial experience with anyone.”
Zaunbrecher went on to point out that he has “given back” extensively to the North Shore communities through non-profit and charity work and donations, along with a commitment to pro-bono work.
“I have been a big promoter of judges doing pro-bono work and I have an ongoing case at all times with the Southeast Louisiana Legal Services,” he said. “I always have at least one case I am handling and have done that for years. I know I have taken on hundreds of pro-bono cases…it’s about giving back and it’s in my DNA….it’s just what I do.”
Zaunbrecher has done so much pro-bono work that he received the prestigious “Citizen Lawyer Award” in 2014 and 2015 from the Louisiana State Bar, as well as the 2012 “Pro-Bono Public Award” for his extensive contribution of time and resources.
“Not only have I done a lot of pro-bono work over the years, but I was the president of the Covington Bar Association one year and encouraged other lawyers to do more, which saw us increase the caseloads by 120 percent in one year,” he added.
Laurent also believes his background and experience are the reasons he is the best candidate. He said he grew up in Slidell in the late 60s as a teen who faced the issues of discrimination first hand.
“I got in trouble with the law because I drank from the white drinking fountain at the old Frostop on Pontchartrain Drive, and then again when I went in Mr. Pizza where blacks weren’t supposed to be,” he said. “Because of what I experienced I wanted to be a lawyer and I paid my way through LSU and Tulane for my education and have earned the positions I’ve been appointed to.”
As for any questions of not being firm with criminals of all races he was quick to note “I will punish those who deserve to be punished, but I am in favor of the rule of law which can give deserving individuals a second chance.
“For too long the judiciary has been controlled by the few elite in this parish,” he said. “I am the common man—a solo practicing lawyer—but I am not racial in any way, no matter what my upbringing was. I have love and compassion for others and that is what I will use for the betterment of this parish.”
Laurent said he is running a race with little support from the establishment, particularly public officials who have mainly endorsed Zaunbrecher.
“I sent out 294 letters to elected officials in the two parishes and got only one or two responses from those who said they would support me,” he said. “But I am seeing we have a campaign of the people. We already have 1,500 yard signs in the two parishes and we only give them out to those who really want to support me. I feel like our momentum is growing and we can win this election.”
Zaunbrecher said he wants to be the judge to protect the quality of life in St. Tammany Parish.
“We enjoy a special way of life in our two parishes and the best way I can help protect that is to be a judge,” he said. “That is why I am running. I’m not doing this for more exposure, it is a way I can give back to the community that has been so good to my family.”