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Press Release: Legal Lines with Locke Meredith

Judge Toni Higginbotham, Show # 130


Attorney Locke Meredith interviews first circuit of appeals judge, Toni Higginbotham, to discuss her role in serving the state of Louisiana.

Higginobotham served as a judge in family court for fifteen years, before being elected to first circuit court of appeals judge. She got her law license at age forty. Higginbotham had been active in her community, been a coach of every sport, as she had four kids, and has been married to a district judge, Leo Higginbotham, and so representing her community as a lawyer was as natural step for her to make. When the position of family court judge opened up in 1996, Judge Higginbotham thought it was a job she had the right temperament for. She was elected, without really knowing what was required, and served that role for fifteen years, until last October, when she was elected to her current position: first circuit court of appeals judge.

Since her law school graduation, Higginbotham has held a variety of positions. She was appointed to the selective service board by President Ronald Reagan, she was appointed by Governor David Treen as assistant secretary to the Department of Urban and community affairs, and then she ended up being a council to the Police Jury Association of Louisiana. She also was Vice-president of the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency.

Higginbotham explains how she felt that serving as family judge, she could use her experience as a mother, and raising a family to better server her community, to “give something back,” she says. The kind of issues she dealt with as a family court judge included some very important and serious issues like custody of children, how the family property will be divided, ect. These are sensitive issues that are often dealt with on a long term basis, as custody issues remain in the power of court until all the children are 18. These decisions are often very challenging, for example, a situation where both parties want custody, and both may be quite capable.

Next Higginbotham explains how she came to run for court of appeals. She wasn’t planning to run, being quite content with her position as family court judge, but when the position opened up and Judge Downing told her he wasn’t running, she made basically an overnight decision to go for it. Toni Higginbotham was the first female judge on the first circuit court of appeals from East Baton Rouge Parish. Of the three branches of government, Higginbotham explains that the court of appeals falls under the judicial, as compared with the legislative and executive branches. This branch is designed to protect the people’s rights and uphold the Constitution. In Louisiana, there are five circuits, and the first circuit court of appeals is over sixteen parishes. It is the largest in terms of case volume and population.

As far as running for office, Judge Higginbotham had a website built to follow what she was doing, as well as various other forms of social media, like twitter, as well as a huge sign campaign. Her 30,000 proceedings in family court helped her to be able to use a large group of supporters when it came to campaigning. Not all states elect judges like Louisiana, but Higginbotham explains how she likes this process. She is president elect of the American Judges Association, which gives her relationships with a huge diversity of judges from all over the nation.

The job of the legislative branch, Meredith explains, is to interpret the laws based on the facts that come to the judges. Serving at the appellate level, instead of the family court level, gives Judge Higginbotham a different form of approach. Meredith asks her about this. She says she misses litigants and lawyers, saying most everything she does is about “grading papers.” Trial level judges see the people, hear the arguments, and are in the court. Appellate level judges only see the black and white paper records of the case, and assess whether or not it was done correctly.

As to the structure of the first circuit, there are twelve judges, with these broken up into four panels of three judges, serving for one year at a time. When somebody goes to the clerk of court and files a suit, it is allocated to a judge panel first, and then randomly to a judge in that panel. There is no preferential treatment of case assignment. Judges are not assigned cases if they have family involved or if they have presided over the case before on another court level. To overturn a judge’s decision from the trial level, it takes a unanimous decision of a three-judge panel. If only two out of three judges overturn a ruling, and you want to continue to appeal, the case goes to a five-judge panel, and then it can go to seven, nine, or eventually all twelve, but this is rare. As far as writing the opinion, this is allotted randomly, with each of the three judges in the panel writing a third of the opinions.

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