Byron Hebert is not seeking re-election as judge for the 15th Judicial seat that serves a part of Acadia Parish, Vermilion and Lafayette Parishes later this year. For the past 28 years, sitting as a judge and presiding over jury trials has been his way of life. But the election part of the job is nothing new. As a child, he grew up with his father as Vermilion Parish Clerk of Court, one of his uncles was the coroner, his brother Cordell was on the School Board, and his grandfather was a police juror.
Judge Hebert said, “I guess my political life actually started when I was in high school. I was a junior and ran against my brother, who was a senior, for student council president. I lost.” From that experience, he was elected Beta President and graduated from Abbeville High School in 1961.
College produced an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and a law degree from Loyola in 1970. He was also introduced to a girl named Meg from Newcomb Women’s College (later absorbed into Tulane University). That led to an eventual marriage and four daughters ranging from 34 to 16 years of age today.
When walking through the court house with Judge Hebert, conversations can easily turn into a tour of the history of the building.
“I’m one of the Abbeville Tour guides as well,” said Hebert, “and one of the things I did was to organize the portraits of the past judges that hang on the walls in the courtroom. When the new (current) court house was built, we had a portrait of one of the judges that turned out to be the only copy of Judge William Kibbe, who served from 1844 - 1845 and from 1874 - 1878. We got permission to copy the image and finally returned the original print to the family after having it on display for over 30 years.”
Judge Hebert said he feels strongly about keeping the district judges elected instead of being appointed.
“It’s a matter of accountability,” he said. “This way, people have a chance to vote where appointments are more politically motivated. Judges also have a code of ethics that govern the way you can campaign and that you cannot endorse any candidate for any public office.”
As for his case load, he said “It includes some divorces, but we do have a separate division for Family Practice, Juvenile Adoptions, some capital cases that may or may not include the death penalty. Rape cases involving a child are divided among the judges. There are also civil cases, traffic, petty theft, small claims on up and judgements with or without a jury. The only case you cannot give up the right to a jury trial is a capital case and a death penalty requires that the jury be unanimous in it’s decision.”
He described working in the court as “a career choice to become a judge since I was already a magistrate.”
Following his graduation from law school, Judge Hebert became a clerk for Judge Putnam, whom he considers his mentor. His US Magistrate position was only a part-time assignment and was working out of the Federal office in Opelousas. He was in the process of possibly expanding the magistrate duties into full time when Judge Spell decided to retire with four of the six years remaining in his term. “The position of judge has more variety of case loads in the state system than the magistrates position took on.”
While talking about the duties of a judge, Hebert mentioned something he found out from a judge in another state.
“This judge said they don’t do any juvenile, probate traffic or small claims. Working as a general jurisdiction judge, you can do a lot,” he added. “We used to follow a rotation of two years of civil cases and then one year of criminal cases. That wore you out a lot faster than the system we have now where you can get any type of case at any time.”
“I was on the bench when Abbeville Patrolman John Hardy’s killer came to trial. It was eventually moved from Abbeville to Lafayette because of the feelings of the community. He was convicted of murder, but not given the death penalty because it was a hung jury.”
“You try not to let the fact that the people who vote you in as judge are the people you’re trying in court. It’s important to keep public opinion out of the court room so you can remain impartial and follow the law. It’s a matter of accountability and not individual decision. This is the whole concept of how a judge handles his duties.”
Judges take vacations much like the rest of the American workforce. Hebert said that the judges used to have a slower time in the July and August months where half would take off in July and the remaining judges taking off in August. “Now,” said Hebert, “the case load is too heavy to have that many of us out at one time. Now, we rotate time off during the year.”
He described the average workload of a judge as handling 36 to 40 trial weeks per year. The criminal docket is generally heavier according to Hebert.
One of the lengthiest cases Hebert recalled was the recall petition to have Lafayette Mayor Kenny Bowen removed from office.
. “The Registrar of Voters (Stephen Bernard) was on the stand for days and days and there was just a lot of evidence,” the Judge said. “He was up there for so long that they would interrupt his testimony saying ‘we have a live witness’ like he wasn’t alive at all. In the end, there weren’t enough valid names on the recall petition against Mayor Bowen and it was one of the most detailed decisions I can remember.”
Judge Hebert also talked about Louisiana being very high on both the length of prison terms and the amount spent per prisoner. Juvenile court is going more toward treatment oriented dispositions and not simply punishing with incarceration. Home and half way house incarcerations are now in greater use and the cost is put on the individual and not the state to pay to provide housing, medical and food requirements.
While retirement may have Judge Hebert off the bench full time, there is still the possibility of an appointment as a Judge ad hoc for special cases or as Judge pro tempore for a period of time or group of like cases.
He still has his volunteer position as an in-home marriage preparation instructor for the Catholic Church. Either working as a part time judge or simply with couples planning marriages, he’ll still be the one in the middle ground. And then there’s still the youngest daughter at age 16 to watch as she finishes growing up.