Candidates run in heated battle for judgeship: Judge Susan Theall
NAME: Susan Theall
PROFESSION: Attorney; Family Court judge 15th Judicial District
EDUCATION: University of Southwestern Louisiana Bachelor (now UL Lafayette), bachelor of arts in English, 1980; Loyola University Law School, juris doctor, 1985.
Fifteenth Judicial District Family Court Judge Susan Theall spoke with the Advanced reporting class, to express her love for family court and serving people and to speculate on why she has drawn an opponent, Charlie Fitzgerald.
“Since becoming elected, I have worked diligently to bring fairness to the court for every person and every case during a difficult time for families,” she said. “My only job is to serve the people of this district.”
Theall has been at the helm of the family court since 2011, after being elected to fill a vacancy, and according to her, “It’s been a wild ride” since then. I She acknowledged it is rare for a sitting judge to be challenged for re-election.
“I guess since I have been in office for the least amount of time compared to the other judges, my opponent believes that I am most vulnerable,” she said.
“I was stunned,” she said of Fitzgerald’s challenge. “I think he was upset at me because I ruled against him. Charlie hasn’t tried a complete case in front of me in three years. I ruled against Mr. Fitzgerald. This is something that people have told me. I haven’t heard it directly from his mouth.”
Theall ruled against Fitzgerald in a case involving a woman whom Fitzgerald represented who spent two years in jail for hiring an undercover hit man to kill her husband, according to Theall.
“The woman got out of jail, and wanted to sue for community property,” she said. “Before we could get to the community property trial, Charlie and one of his partners filed to ask for an advance of the community so that she could live on it.”
Theall said she denied the woman alimony because she did not have custody of her children, nor did she live in the family home. The woman then took the case to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, which upheld Theall.
The woman went to the community property division and settled the case out of court for $10 million, according to Theall. Fitzgerald’s father and his partner, Ronald Cox, wanted their one-third fee, but the woman filed a fee dispute, and their fee was reduced to $850,000, she said.
“They hold me responsible, because she was so afraid to lose the $3.3 million,” Theall said.
Theall noted that during her time in office, she was selected to the Supreme Court’s Judicial Leadership Institute, was appointed to the Supreme Court’s Domestic Violence Education Committee to teach other judges how to handle domestic violence cases, began the only self-represented court in Louisiana and started a drug rehabilitation program for parents battling addiction to be able to reunite with their children as quickly as possible. She was named the chief judge of the 15th Judicial District by her fellow judges.
Theall rejected Fitzgerald’s campaign argument that she is less suited than he to decide cases in family court because she is not married and has no children. “I think that it doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “I think that is a curious campaign pitch by my opponent. I always thought that by the time I was 57 I’d have a husband and kids, but it just didn’t work out that way.”
Theall talked about programs that she implemented in her three years in office, and she mentioned the self-presented parties docket as one of the programs that she is proudest of.
“The self-represented parties docket is geared towards the poorer people in the community,” she said. “They call the police, and the Lafayette Parish Bar Association provides forms for people to represent themselves, and the forms are $5-10. They fill out the forms, file it with the clerk of court office and it goes to my office. I don’t want people being afraid when they come to court.”
Asked about what possible changes she would try to implement if elected, Theall responded with something she says she has been working on for years.
“I would like to be able to move cases along quicker,” she said. “We should be operating more like a business. My goals are to focus energy and time to move cases faster so that there is not anxiousness for the parents or the children.”
Asked why college students should pay attention to this race, Theall replied, “It is the most interesting area of your life. Everyone at some point will either have a relationship or a child or get a divorce and will need to come to family court.”
Theall tried her first case as a family court lawyer in 1986, and she said it served as a catalyst for steering her career in its current direction.
“When I saw the effect that my work had on the little boy, I realized that this is where I should promote my time and energy,” she said. “That is what I have been doing for the last 29 years.”