Producing Leaders in the Judiciary

By Natasha Lacoste, J.D. ’11

Alumni garner success as high-ranking members of the bench.

The number of graduates of the College of Law who have gone on to become judges is in the hundreds, as evidenced by the “Wall of Judges” in the first floor of the main law school building. However, Loyola does not stop at merely producing judges; it has generated jurists of the highest caliber—chief judges, appellate judges, and state Supreme Court justices. Achieving the position of a high ranking judge takes not only hard work, but fortitude as well. Those who attain these positions do so through dedication to their profession, pride in their work, and many years of service. The following women and men have made impressive strides in their judicial careers, and the College of Law is honored to feature them.

Bringing Gender and Values to the Bench

Justice Jeannette Knoll, J.D. ’69 (Louisiana Supreme Court), Chief Judge Vanessa Guidry-Whipple, J.D. ’80 (Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal), and Chief Judge Susan Chehardy, J.D. ’85 (Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal) all had different paths and experiences that led them to the legal profession, but each was the first female to serve on her respective appellate bench. When Knoll was elected to the Third Circuit Court of Appeal in 1982, she was the first woman elected to a reviewing court in Louisiana. Moreover, Guidry-Whipple and Chehardy are the first female chief judges of the First and Fifth Circuit Courts of Appeal.

“Females bring a woman’s perspective, while males bring a man’s perspective, both of which are important components to the bench,” says Knoll, who had an unconventional path to the law.

Knoll planned to follow her mother’s footsteps—have a dozen children, be a housewife, and be involved with music. Her mother was a classical pianist; Knoll is an opera singer. She won a Metropolitan Opera Association and New Orleans Opera Guild Scholarship at age 18 to study voice under the direction of Maestro Adler of the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York. Thankfully for the legal community, her husband-to-be, Eddie Knoll, had other plans. She enrolled at the College of Law because Eddie talked her into it.

“He wanted to open a ‘Mom and Pop’ law firm after graduation,” she explains. “I told him I’d give law school two weeks. But I ended up falling in love with the law and just knew that this was my niche.”

After working as an assistant district attorney for a number of years, Knoll grew tired of trial work and the long hours it entailed. So she decided to pursue a judgeship in order to have more time to spend with her family. Knoll notes that her singing was wonderful preparation for becoming a judge.
“Singing was superb training for adversarial law,” she says. “You sang to be critiqued; it was an extremely stressful experience. And it also helped prepare me for the rigors of campaigning.”

Guidry-Whipple was drawn to the legal profession while working for a local newspaper after receiving her undergraduate degree.

“It was then that I realized what a large impact lawyers have on society—how they shape policies and procedures throughout the world. Also, I wanted to do something meaningful while still being able to have a family life,” she says.

After practicing for 10 years, Guidry-Whipple felt prepared to work at the appellate level.

“I have a great passion for reading and writing, and these skills are constantly used by judges,” she says.

Chehardy sought a judgeship for two somewhat related reasons: first, her family had instilled in her a deep commitment to public service, and second, being a judge gave her the opportunity to help people on a broader stage.

“As a judge, your reach goes further than when practicing law,” she says.

All three women have made, and continue to make, many notable accomplishments as practicing lawyers and as judges. Knoll observes that her most notable case occurred during her early days of practice, when she was assigned a case involving an indigent defendant—State v. James. Mr. James was an African American ex-convict charged with raping a white woman, which was a capital offense. At that time, women were not allowed to serve on juries. Thus, the jury was comprised of all men, only one of which was African American. At trial, Knoll proved who the actual perpetrator was and obtained an acquittal. During jury deliberations, the district attorney offered her client a plea—a misdemeanor. She told Mr. James of the offer, but said if he took it, she would withdraw from the case because she believed so much in the strength of his case.

Since being elected in 1982, Knoll has authored approximately 1150 opinions, 286 of those while serving on the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Guidry-Whipple highlights the tremendous caseload, both civil and criminal, at the First Circuit Court of Appeal.

“Although there is a heavy caseload, everyone I work with, from the judges to the staff, is wonderful,” she says. “All of the judges know each other really well, and my colleagues are interesting, creative, and extremely hardworking.”

Guidry-Whipple also notes that recently, and for the first time in history, the court had an all-women panel of judges.

When Chehardy was appointed ad hoc to sit in interim on the district court, she was thrilled because she knew that for the first few years she would be handling domestic cases.

“I knew there was a better way for parents to handle custody disputes rather than ‘duking it out’ in the courtroom,” she says.

At this time, the practice of alternative dispute resolution was just becoming prevalent, and after her appointment, Chehardy was able to work with the family mediation counsel. She loved this—working to replace the concept that the court knew better than the parents what was best for their children.

“And over the past 20 years, there has been a huge decrease in contested custody cases at the appellate level,” she notes. “The culture has changed. More and more people are settling custody disputes themselves without the help of the courts.”

Both Guidry-Whipple and Chehardy believe that the College of Law instills a sense of duty to give back to the community through service. Their education at the law school taught them to use their skills and the intellectual gifts they were given to help others.

Chehardy notes that Loyola is excellent: “Judges take the bench along with their life experiences and viewpoints, and when you have this type of moral base, it is much easier to take the bench,” she says. “Thus, the values you learn at Loyola transfer not just to your profession, but to your personal life as well.”

Breaking Barriers

In 1991, Carl E. Stewart, J.D. ’74, made history by becoming the first African American judge elected to the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeal. After serving with distinction on that court for several years, he became the first African American on the new United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Stewart was the only African American on that court for 17 years. He is also the Fifth Circuit’s first African American chief judge, ascending to that position in 2012.

When asked how it was being the only African American judge, Stewart states: “Before I became a judge, there were many experiences where I was the only African American. Thus, I was used to it. I just tried to be excellent in any task assigned to me, and if you garner the reputation of being hardworking, respectful, and competent, this is how others will view you.”

Stewart chose to pursue a legal career for a number of reasons. From an early age, his parents taught him that education was a great equalizer, and while in college he became aware that lawyers, especially leaders such as Thurgood Marshall, were using their skills to bring about societal changes. Also, he liked the fact that being a lawyer is a service profession.

“As a lawyer, you get to help clients resolve their problems, and in general, just help people,” he says.

Stewart also enjoyed writing, exchanging ideas, and working with all types of people, making a legal career a natural fit for him. When the war broke out in Vietnam, Stewart had a low draft number, and by joining the ROTC unit at Loyola he was able to delay his entry into the service. “After I finished law school, I knew I had a military obligation to enter JAG.” He served in the JAG corps for approximately two years before entering private practice and then working as a prosecutor.

In the mid-1980s, Stewart had decided to leave his prosecutorial office and move into private practice. However, a seat became open on the First Judicial District Court of Louisiana, and he was encouraged to pursue the vacancy. At that time the only African American judges in Louisiana were located in New Orleans.

“I was extremely apprehensive about running, and thought my odds of winning were slim,” he says. “Nevertheless, I decided to jump right in and immersed myself in the campaign.”

After winning, Stewart says it took some time to sink in that he was not returning to private practice. However, once he assumed the office, he felt extremely comfortable with the work. His parents’ teachings and his education had prepared him well for the bench. When a seat became vacant on the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeal, his family encouraged him to take advantage of the opportunity. He did, and was elected in 1991. Then in 1994, Stewart was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

“Loyola provides people with a fundamental education that puts them in good standing in any profession they chose to pursue, whether law related or not.”

Stewart credits Loyola for much of his success. He noted that his prior law clerks from the College of Law measured up to clerks from other schools, even those from Ivy League institutions.

Connecting with the People

For James McKay, J.D. ’74, chief judge of the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, having a deep understanding of the day-to-day problems that individuals face is what matters most, especially as a member of the bench.

“I was always service oriented,” he says. “I never practiced in a law firm. And during my time as a state prosecutor, I developed a great empathy for others, along with an understanding of how the real world functions.”

After practicing law for eight years in the public sector, McKay was ready for a change.

“I felt that my time as a prosecutor had given me the tools that the public most certainly wants its judges to possess—empathy and a deep knowledge of problems that individuals face on a daily basis,” he says.

A seat had opened on the Criminal District Court when McKay’s close friend, Chief Judge Bernard J. Bagert, died.

“It was a question of an opportunity making itself available,” McKay says. “Plus my wife and extended family were extremely supportive of this decision.”

When a vacancy later occurred on the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, McKay had been on the criminal bench 15 years and was once again ready for a change.

“Things at the criminal court had become a bit monotonous, and I had accomplished what I wanted to do,” he notes.

In addition to his service on the bench, McKay displays service to his city and state as an active member in the Irish community in New Orleans as well as nationwide. This past St. Patrick’s Day, he was named Hibernian of the Year by the Ancient Order of Hibernians—the oldest (established in 1836) and largest Irish-Catholic organization in the United States. McKay also serves as the Honorary Consul General of Ireland for the state of Louisiana.

A Different Type of Chief Judge

Cameron Simmons ’79, J.D. ’82, also holds the title of chief judge, but his court is a bit different. Simmons was appointed to the Chitimacha Tribal Court in 1990. Chitimacha is one of three tribal courts in Louisiana, along with Coushatta and Tunica-Biloxi. He now serves as the chief judge of the tribal court at the district level.

When the Indian Reorganization Act was enacted in 1934, Indian tribes were given power to establish their own court systems. These tribal courts have jurisdiction to hear and settle all types of disputes that arise within the territorial boundaries of the tribe. The cases range from family law matters to personal injury claims against casinos. However, there are some differences between Tribal Court and other courts.

“At the Tribal Court, I have more resources at my disposal than in the state court system, especially with regards to juveniles,” Simmons says.

Also in 1990, Simmons ran for an opening on the city court against an incumbent of 18 years. He won, but he kept his private law practice for many years since serving as a judge in a rural community is a part-time appointment. Simmons was thrilled to wear two hats for the majority of his legal career—those of judge and practicing lawyer.

While at the College of Law, Simmons participated in the legal clinic. “My participation in the clinic was instrumental in preparing me to become a lawyer. I once represented an armed robbery defendant in the CDC in New Orleans and tried that case in front of a jury. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the courtroom.”After graduation, he sought employment in the city of Jeanerette, Louisiana.

“Although I was born and raised in New Orleans, I wanted to live and work in the country because I just love it here,” he says. “I absolutely love the practice of law, especially in a small community. Living in a more rural environment really gives you the opportunity to cultivate close relationships with others.”

Recent Graduates who have Obtained Federal Clerkships

A number of recent graduates of the College of Law have obtained federal clerkships, putting them on the path to one day grace the “Wall of Judges” themselves.

Amenah Abdelfattah, J.D. ’13, The Hon. Karen Wells Roby, U.S.D.C. Eastern District of Louisiana, Magistrate Judge
Lindsey Harreld Chopin, J.D. ’13, The Hon. Carl Barbier, J.D. ’70, U.S.D.C. Eastern District of Louisiana
Maria Teresa Gonzalez, J.D. ’12, The Hon. Gustavo Gelpi, U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico
Mirais Holden, J.D. ’13, The Hon. Carl Barbier, J.D. ’70, U.S.D.C. Eastern District of Louisiana
Joe Landry, J.D. ’13, The Hon. Jay Zainey, U.S.D.C. Eastern District of Louisiana
Keriann Langley, J.D. ’12, The Hon. Carl Barbier, J.D. ’70, U.S. Eastern District of Louisiana
Krystal Norton, J.D. 13, The Hon. William Stogner, U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration Judge, New Orleans, Louisiana
Lacey E. Rochester, J.D. ’12, The Hon. Wendy Hagenau, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of Georgia
Peter Segrist, J.D. ’13, The Hon. Patricia Minaldi, U.S.D.C. Western District Louisiana
Meera Unnithan Sossamon, J.D. ’12, The Hon. Ivan L.R. Lemelle, J.D. ’74, U.S. Eastern District of Louisiana


Natasha Lacoste, J.D. ’11, is the research associate for College of Law Dean María Pabón López.

View the complete spring 2013 issue of Loyola Lawyer.

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