The deal brokered by Secretary of State with recall organizers is at the center of the challenges filed today

By Anitra D. Brown
The New Orleans Tribune

Mayor LaToya Cantrell has been joined by community leader, Rev. Willie Calhoun in filing legal challenges to the what has been categorized by some as a “backroom deal” brokered by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin with recall organizers on the backs of Orleans Parish voters.

Lawyers representing Mayor LaToya Cantrell and local community leader and activist Rev. Willie Calhoun, filed two legal actions today (Tuesday, March 14), challenging efforts aimed at removing Mayor Cantrell from office.

The attorneys, Marion Floyd and Ron Wilson, filed legal actions in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The dual actions challenge the authority of Louisiana Secretary of State, R. Kyle Ardoin, to eliminate 25,000 qualified electors from the count in the effort to recall of Mayor Cantrell.

First, there is a lawsuit filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court with Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and recall organizers, Eileen Carter and Belden Batiste, named as respondents, asking the court to vacate their deal to reduce the number of electors by 25,000, and by extension, the number of signatures required by 5,000.

The lawsuit, while calling into question Ardoin’s authority to make a “backroom deal” to reduce the number of signatures also raises concerns about Civil District Court Judge Jennifer Medley’s role in sanctioning the compromise and asks that deal be tossed out, particularly in the wake of last week’s revelation that Judge Medley signed the recall petition.

The move likely comes as little surprise as speculation that a series of recent recall-related activities would prompt legal challenges. That chatter went into overdrive late last week when it was revealed that Judge Medley signed the recall petition.

Judge Jennifer Medley failed to notify parties in a recall lawsuit before her court that she has signed the recall petition months earlier.

Medley presided over the case involving recall organizers’ lawsuit contesting the accuracy of the voter rolls. In her first move, Judge Medley denied election officials’ motion to have the case dismissed. Then, she went on to approve the deal to reduce the number of qualified electors without disclosing that she signed the petition or recusing herself, steps that some legal experts have said should have been taken.

“The whole recall process has lacked transparency,” said community and business leader William “Bill” Rouselle, who has advised Mayor Cantrell for many years. “The recall organizers have refused to make the petition signatures public, which is required by law. We find out the judge ruling on the recall signed the recall petition and did not notify the parties involved. And clearly the Secretary of State acted illegally in reducing the number of qualified electors to be counted in the recall. We feel compelled to step up to the plate now because these actions by the Secretary of State could be a precursor of what will transpire in the upcoming state and local elections. They used this opportunity to demoralize our people, divide our city, and disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters in New Orleans ahead of the Governor’s race. But we won’t let them take our rights away.”

In that earlier lawsuit, recall organizers made claims yet to be substantiated that Orleans Parish voter rolls include more than 33,000 names of individuals not legally able to vote in New Orleans.

Instead of going to trial in the matter, a deal was struck between Ardoin and recall organizers and sanctioned by Judge Medley to reduce the active, eligible voter roll in Orleans Parish by 25,000 — thus reducing the number of signatures needed to certify the petition by 5,000 names.

The lawsuit and writ of mandamus filed on behalf of Mayor Cantrell and registered voter and community leader Rev. Willie Calhoun challenge Sec. of State Kyle Ardoin’s authority to broker a deal with recall organizers to reduce the number of qualified electors by 25,000 and the number of signatures needed to trigger a recall by 5,000.

But whether Ardoin even has the authority to make such a deal is the second part of the challenge filed today. In addition the local lawsuit, the plaintiffs are also seeking a writ of mandamus, demanding Ardoin justify his authority to broker the deal in the first place. It has been filed in East Baton Rouge Parish, where Ardoin serves in his official capacity as secretary of state.

“The Secretary of State acted without constitutional or legislative authority in reducing the number of qualified voters required to trigger a recall election,” said Marion Floyd, one of the attorneys representing Mayor Cantrell and Rev. Calhoun. “Simply put, Ardoin did not have the power to make that change and make it retroactive to the date of submission of the recall petition. What he did, essentially, was re-write the law which guides recall elections in Louisiana. But that power rests with the legislature. What Ardoin did was unlawful.”

According to state law, a recall petition filed in Orleans Parish, because of the number of registered voters it has, required that the number of signatures collected for a recall to equal to 20 percent of the qualified electors, essentially the count of all active, eligible voters, as of the date the petition was filed — 249,876 on August 26, 2022.

Recall organizers Elleen Carter and Belden “Noonie Man” Batiste are both named in the lawsuit filed today along with the secretary of state. At the crux of the argument made by attorneys on behalf of Mayor Cantrell and her co plaintiff Rev. Willie Calhoun is whether Sec. Ardoin had any legal authority to broker a deal with Carter, Batiste and the recall campaign to reduce the number of qualified electors in Orleans Parish.

However, the deal between Ardoin and recall organizers reduced the number qualified electors by 25,000 to 224,875 and the number of signatures needed to trigger a recall by 5,000 — from 49,976 to 44,976.

The crux of the argument being made by Mayor Cantrell and Rev. Calhoun, through their attorneys, is that the number of signatures that must be collected for a recall petition to be certified is set by state law and can only be changed by the state legislature, and not at the arbitrary whim of the secretary of state.

“We’re asking him to follow the law or show just cause why he didn’t,” Rouselle told The New Orleans Tribune. “This is a dangerous rabbit hole they are going down and if we let him do it this time, whose to say it won’t happen again.”

While both Ardoin and recall organizers have repeatedly claimed that the compromise did not remove any names from the Orleans Parish voter rolls, today’s challenge is directed at whether Ardoin actually has the the legal power to arbitrarily reduce a threshold that is dictated prescribed by state law in any manner.

Lawyers for Mayor Cantrell and Rev. Calhoun contend that neither state law nor case precedence give Ardoin that power.

Meanwhile, the Orleans Parish of Register Office has until March 22 to complete its certification of the petition.

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