Judge Wilford Carter. (American Press Archives)
Last Modified: Friday, October 04, 2013 12:33 PM
The longest-serving judge in 14th Judicial District Court will step down at the end of the month.
Judge Wilford Carter, one of the first black judges elected in Calcasieu’s state district court, confirmed he is retiring on Oct. 31. He said he mailed the appropriate paperwork on Wednesday.
“My legacy, I hope, would be a judge that was fair and treated everybody the same and wasn’t influenced by anything but the law and the issues before me,” Carter said.
Since Carter is stepping down midterm, the Supreme Court must appoint a replacement.
Often considered controversial, Carter said he made decisions and set bonds as he believed was fair, not to appease the public.
“I tried to be impartial, be my own man and make my own decisions,” Carter said. “I’m not one that’s influenced by public opinions or politics or power. I just pretty much do my own thing whether you like it or not and let the 3rd Circuit reverse me if I’m wrong.”
Carter, 65, and Al Gray were the first black judges elected in the 14th Judicial District Court. Carter has served as judge for 21 years. He said his assistant for 21 years, Bernadette Simon Robinson Hunt, was also the first black judicial assistant in the 14th Judicial District.
Carter said he never intended to serve more than one term when he first ran in 1992.
Now, he said he plans to return to private practice.
“I started out as a lawyer, and I’d like to complete my days of work as a lawyer,” Carter said. “I enjoy practicing law. It’s a challenge to me, and I’m just as nervous now as I was when I was first elected judge to go back after 21 years and practice law.”
He said he will be an “old-school lawyer,” accepting any cases that come through the doors of his office.
“My ego has been served enough, and I’d like to now go and practice law, using some of the ideas and experience as a judge to help people in the community by representing them in litigation and disputes.”
If he gets tired of practicing law, he’ll go fishing, he said.
He said he continued to run for judge “because I enjoyed what I was doing.”
He said he doesn’t believe he’s changed much over the years.
“I came here and I had hair; I don’t have hair now,” the often animated and always colorful Carter said. “That’s the biggest difference ... Everything else is the same. I’m the same person, and I have the same philosophy.”
Chief Judge David Ritchie said he must send a formal request to the state Supreme Court asking it to appoint a replacement for Carter. Ritchie said he has already contacted the Supreme Court, which assured him it will act quickly to fill the vacancy.
A special election will have to be called because there is more than a year remaining on Carter’s six-year term, which ends Dec. 31, 2014, Ritchie said.
Carter dropped out of high school to join the Army, but was awarded a diploma from Washington High School in 1967, he said. He received a degree in accounting from McNeese in 1972 and a law degree from Southern University in 1975.
Carter was the second black Lake Charles city councilman, elected in 1977, and served as the council’s first black president in 1982. He was also the first black state representative from Southwest Louisiana, serving 1984-1992. He chaired the civil law committee in 1987.
As a state representative, Carter worked on legislation that created a black district for the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal. In total, he’s been elected 12 times to the various positions, he said.
“The judge has served as a unique example of achievement,” said Shawn Papillion, Carter’s bailiff for nearly three years. “Imagine what a figure like Judge Carter has been to kids who did not ever dream or could not ever dream about being a black judge.”
Papillion said Carter has served as a mentor to many who have worked with him, including Heidi Williams, a former clerk who now serves as a municipal court judge in Houston.
“While I may have my detractors in the affluent of the community sometimes, the people who came in front of my court, I think overwhelmingly they had a satisfactory, at least a fair, experience,” Carter said.
Carter isn’t ruling out a return to public office in another capacity.
Carter made headlines for the bond amounts he set, as well as for dust-ups with the District Attorney’s Office, law enforcement officers and other judges.
Carter said he made decisions he believed were right.
“It’s not a popularity contest,” he said.
The bonds Carter set were often lower than those of other judges, but Carter said he set bonds according to his philosophy.
“While it’s not popular to believe a person is innocent until they are proven guilty, I really believe that and I’m pretty stringent on holding the state to its burden of proof,” Carter said. “I don’t believe that bonds are punishment, so my bonding philosophy is a reasonable bond in compliance with the constitution of our state.”
Carter said he got along well with his fellow judges, although they tangled when Carter wanted to handle family cases, a case that went to the Supreme Court.
Carter said he “fought tooth and nail” to handle the cases and thinks it’s ironic that he has handled one-ninth of family court cases since January.
“Eventually the court came around to my thinking,” he said.
Carter said that while he has had disagreements with the District Attorney’s Office, he has liked by prosecutors who have entered his courtroom.
“I treat a district attorney like I treat any other lawyer,” Carter said. “He happens to be the state’s attorney, but he’s still another lawyer and that’s how I treat him in court.”
Carter said that although he had disagreements with some prosecutors, he harbors no animosity.
“I’ve been here 21 years and I’m sure the prosecutors are not going to mourn my leaving, and indeed that’s OK with me,” he said. “It’s not that I’m going away. I’m going in a different role; I will still be practicing law. I look forward to working with prosecutors. They are fine people; I just have a different opinion on some issues with a couple of them.”
When asked for comment about Carter leaving, District Attorney John DeRosier said, “I will miss him dearly.”
Carter believes his position affected his sons when they had run-ins with the law.
Carter’s son, Jay Norris Carter, served time in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the late 1990s.
“I think prosecution in some cases may have been warranted, but the aggressiveness of the prosecution was primarily because of who I was,” Carter said.
He said he’s not the only person in the public eye whose children have had brushes with the law.
“I think I’m a good judge, some people might not agree, but I’m not responsible for what other people think,” Carter said. “But I don’t think my family ought to have any effect on how they’re dealt with based on what they perceive me to be.
“I don’t treat people like that. I don’t care who it is, I treat everybody the same, whether they’re a public official or not a public official, whether they’re rich or poor, they’re all treated the same in my court.”
Posted By: Donald Guidry On: 7/20/2014
Wilford Carter was a great judge. I was honored to practice before him. He will be missed.
Posted By: John R. Thomas (Popson) On: 10/17/2013
Title: John R. Thomas (Popson)
Judge Carter you were the soul protector of all Citizen rights while you were on the bench. I will surely miss the style you and Big Al had. I wish you the best in all your endeavors. Remember you always will have my vote for whatever position you run for! Thanx for everything!
Posted By: rebfelice On: 10/14/2013
Title: so sorry to see him go BUT I want to hire him
I would like to hire him when he opens his doors!!!!
He has always seemed fair to me and not a stuck up! I hope you give his info out to his office address etc.
Posted By: Pam Guillory On: 10/10/2013
Title: We are loosing a very caring Judge
We are loosing a very caring and fair Judge did not matter if you were red, white, black or blue. Judge Cater you will be truly missed. Many times I just sat in your court room to listen. You were always fair with the decisions you made. You were also a very humerous judge just never knew what you would say but always left with a good laugh. Stay the same no matter what your next profession will be. Just praying the community could get a carbon copy of you. Which I know your shoes will be hard to fill. Be Blessed !!
Posted By: Norvell Yvonne On: 10/9/2013
A judge for all the people not just a few. Thank you for your service Judge Carter, I pray someone with like philosophy will occupy your seat. Thanks for carrying out the cause of justice for the people.
Posted By: Cheri On: 10/7/2013
Title: Glad to see him go
Bout d**n time
Posted By: Damon Marks On: 10/4/2013
Title: Judge Carter
You have always been fair and you will surely be missed!!! You have served as a great example to our African American youth who aspire for greatness and I always appreciated the fact that you weren't influenced by the negative connotations often associated with poor African Americans in Calcasieu Parish. I know one thing and that is that you will never be replaced. Thanks you for your service to the community and thank you for always keeping it real, no matter what!!
Posted By: JOEL EDWARDS ATLANTA GA. On: 10/3/2013
JUDGE WILFORD CARTER IS ONE OF THE TRUE JUDGES OF OUR TIME. BEING ONE OF THE FIRST BLACK JUDGES OF THE 14TH DISTRICT, HE WAS FAIR TO ALL. GOOD LUCK JUDGE CARTER.
Posted By: Dwight On: 10/3/2013
Title: I agree with Jacobin and I'm white.
Too often we have elected judges almost directly from the DA's office. Big mistake. Judges are NOT cheerleaders for the prosecution. They should be willing to disagree with the DA's office frequently, just like Judge Carter.
Posted By: Jacobin On: 10/3/2013
Title: Sad day. And I'm white.
In very saddened to see Judge Carter step down. It was always a somewhat of a "scary" event while in his courtroom. I had heard rumors he was "soft" on crime, he showed me otherwise with some of his sentences he handed down. His bonds in my opinion were those set to what our Constitution intended. Fair. He treated defendants equally with the philosophy of "innocent until proven guilty". It's too bad people often misunderstood Judge Carter and assumed that he did things he shouldn't have. His record with 3rd Circuit is actually great. Better rain many judges in most circuits.