Tracking Louisiana´s Legal Heritage:
 Celebrating 200 Years of the Federal Courts in Louisiana
 
 

Reprinted with permission from the Federal Bar Association, New Orleans Chapter
The Advocate, Spring edition 2014 Vol. 23, No. 3
by Peter J. Wanek





            Judge Alma Chasez - The "Court Whisperer"

One Fall day several years ago, a group of deer hunters rang the doorbell of a homeowner in Robert, La. The deer hunters were interested in gaining access to the beautiful 140 acre tract of land that appeared to be perfect habitat for their prey.

Unfortunately for the deer hunters, the property owner was Judge Alma Chasez, a former President of the SPCA, member of the Humane Society and lifelong lover of all animals, especially the deer and other wild animals that inhabit the property owned by her family for decades. Needless to say, these hunters were not warmly greeted by Judge Chasez, herself unarmed (fortunately for the hunters), and they most certainly were not given access to her land for hunting.

As a young child, Alma Chasez spent a lot of time at her grandparents’ property in Robert, Louisiana, the same property she would later inherit from her parents, and move to permanently after she lost her own home in Lakeview following Hurricane Katrina. She recalls the early days spent there when they raised ducks, geese, chickens, and cows, not to mention domestic pets. In fact, she recalled her pet chicken, which she used to hold in her arms and rock back and forth like a baby.

Judge Chasez has always felt that “animals need to be protected.” To her, it is very important to protect those who are unable to protect themselves.

Likewise, at the tender age of just 7, Alma Chasez knew she would be a lawyer. “My dad was a judge and my mom was a lawyer, so I didn’t have a chance not to get into the profession,” Judge Chasez says. “But my mom wanted me to teach law or to become a career law clerk and didn’t want me to practice law.”

In fact, Judge Chasez’s mother was the 7th female- attorney in this area (Judge Chasez is of record number 70). Her father, Judge Paul Chasez, was a Civil District Court judge who later became Chief Judge of the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal.

Helena Henderson, Executive Director of the New Orleans Bar Association the past 24 years and a legal historian in these parts, recalled the photograph of a young Alma Chasez tugging on the robe of her father during his Court of Appeal investiture ceremony. Judge Chasez was bred to become a lawyer, and a judge, Ms. Henderson says.

Judge Chasez recalls how there were just two women in law school at Loyola University School of Law when her mother attended. When she was in law school at Loyola, the number of women had increased to just five. “I was not intimidated being in a great minority in law school,” Judge Chasez said. She and many of her friends in law school did not feel discriminated against while in law school, but upon graduating and in searching for legal jobs, the story was far different. “We learned that you had to work ten times as hard and for less than half the recognition. A lot has changed since 1969, thank God.”

Judge Chasez also recalls how her family came from blue collar roots. “My family had a saw mill. My grandfather had a 5th grade education and my grandmother had a 3rd grade education, having been raised in an orphanage.” Judge Chasez was also raised to remember that it was important to have a strong work ethic and that “if you had an education, and particularly a legal education, you could lose your material possessions and still be alright.”

So this upbringing – Judge Chasez’s love for and interest in protecting animals and those who cannot protect themselves, her strong work ethic, and her love for the law – produced a perfect recipe that led to her appointment to the federal magistrate bench on September 24, 1984, after only a few years in private practice.

U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle joined Judge Chasez as a Magistrate Judge just nine days later when he was confirmed on October 3, 1984. Having worked alongside Judge Chasez for almost 30 years, perhaps no one knows Judge Chasez better than Judge Lemelle.

“Alma was fair in how she approached each case. She always gave attention and time to the attorneys. If she disagreed with an attorney’s position, she always did so in a professional manner. In 30 years of working in the federal courts, I have never heard a single complaint about Judge Chasez. Not one.”

Judge Lemelle recalled how when Judge Chasez had “Bird Docket” on her criminal duty week, she felt the need to educate violators on the law and that it was important to teach them the value of protecting the environment. “Alma was patient to explain to violators why the law was important. She felt if you’re going to take away a fisherman’s license for more than a year, it was important to explain to him the law and why he needed to obey federal gaming laws,” recalled Judge Lemelle. “Alma started Greenpeace (figuratively), and she was a true environmentalist. She was active in the humane society and the SPCA. She was passionate about protecting animals and the environment well before it became popular to do so,” says Judge Lemelle.

And Judge Lemelle described how Judge Chasez put the needs of the court well above her own. “Alma suffered the most from Katrina. She lost her home in Lakeview due to the floods. Notwithstanding, she was one of the first to return to the court. Alma lived in terrible conditions despite having a respiratory condition. She then rebuilt her home in Lakeview only to have it damaged again by a tornado weeks later. This forced her to stay at her family’s property in Robert, Louisiana, which caused her to have to commute 1-2 hours daily each way to work. She sacrificed a lot of herself for the court.”

One of Judge Lemelle’s fondest memories of Judge Chasez was when she was President of the New Orleans Bar Association. Judge Lemelle, then a young lawyer, was reluctant to become active in the NOBA because of the organization’s history of not being inclusive in terms of race and gender.

Judge Lemelle recalls: “When Alma was President of the New Orleans Bar Association, she wanted to show the Association differently and was able to get many of us actively involved. I felt that if Alma was a member, so should I be. I wanted to help the New Orleans Bar as much as help Alma. And if Alma could forgive the NOBA, so could I.”

Helena Henderson’s memories of Judge Chasez centered not only on Alma’s love for animals, but also her tremendous drive to educate and to teach attorneys. “Alma felt an obligation to give back and to teach. She has a big heart for animals, the environment, and the elderly. But Alma also wanted her profession to be the best, and she wanted to see the justice system work as efficiently as it could.”

Ms. Henderson explained that during and even after her term as President of the New Orleans Bar Association, Judge Chasez was always active in creating and sustaining programs to help educate attorneys. Programs such as Masters of the Courtroom, Masters in Jury Selection, and the program on Cross Examination were all started or developed by Judge Chasez because she felt that New Orleans had excellent practitioners who could teach and speak to other attorneys to make them better at their profession, says Ms. Henderson. Many of the programs Judge Chasez started are now stand-alone programs of the NOBA.

Recently retired Clerk of Court for the Eastern District, Hon. Loretta Whyte, recalls when Judge Chasez first came to the court: “We shared a close, mutual friend, Michaelle Pitard Wynne, who was a law school classmate of Alma’s. Michaelle always used to tell me how Alma ‘writes like an angel.’” “Alma cared for everyone – the litigants, the lawyers, but especially her staff. She saw every staff member as a person and not a number,” says Ms. Whyte.

Loretta Whyte recalls how “Alma always wanted to protect people who cannot protect themselves. Alma was particularly happy about her work as the court-appointed monitor to oversee the Consent Decree as part of the Hamilton v. Morial case to overhaul the Orleans Parish Prison. The Consent Decree changes went on for years and years. Alma went to the prison to see for herself what changes were taking place. It was a personal thing to her, she wanted to see what unfair treatment and living conditions were present, because to her, each person was vulnerable,” says Ms. Whyte.

Judge Chasez views the work she did monitoring and ensuring that changes were made to the Orleans Parish Prison to be her biggest accomplishment as a judge. “It became nationally accredited for the first time,” Judge Chasez says.

Loretta reiterated how Alma’s love for animals is an extension of her caring and love for people. “There was a kitten in the basement of the courthouse once. Alma came to rescue the kitten in the middle of the night,” Ms. Whyte recalls.

Another close colleague working alongside Judge Chasez was now-Chief Magistrate Judge Jay Wilkinson. “As a judge, Alma had not only sense but sensitivity,” says Judge Wilkinson. “Alma had knowledge of common tendencies and to know the thought processes of human beings that a good judge has to bring to be a practical judge,” says Judge Wilkinson.

Judge Wilkinson is happy for Judge Chasez in her retirement, but he also knows that the court is losing someone special. “Alma leaving is like losing a big chunk of the institution, a ‘link’or ‘continuum’ that she provided for the court connecting what was 30 years ago to what the court is today. She has such institutional memory. Now someone is going to have to step up to fill that void,” he says.

Barry Yager, who started with the court in February 1985, just five months after Judge Chasez’s appointment, began working with the judge exclusively in December 1988. “I have been so fortunate to work with Alma the past 25 years. As a judge, she possessed such a good judicial temperament and was always so respectful to everyone who appeared before her,” says Yager.

While it is true that Judge Chasez once cared for about 30 animals all living with her at her home in Robert (presently the number is about 12-14 cats and 5 dogs), Barry recalls even more how his boss cared for her Aunt during her declining health, and then also Pauline, a caregiver who also cared for Judge Chasez’s mother and Aunt Alma. Post-Katrina, Alma’s housekeeper, Clara, evacuated with her to the house in Robert and lived there with Alma until Clara’s passing a few years ago. “She has a huge heart,” says Yager.

Judge Chasez also has a humorous side. She often names her pets after famous people based on their personalities (one cat was named Saddam after Saddam Hussein – a cat who had a somewhat mean disposition). Barry also recalls that after Judge Wynne passed away, Judge Ginger Berrigan asked Alma to carry on the traditional Halloween party at the courthouse. “Judge Chasez was always in great costumes,” says Yager.

When asked about which case stands out as the most memorable one he had with Judge Chasez, Barry immediately recalls the case of Perro v. WEMCO, Inc. Judge Chasez asked the pro se plaintiff to call his next witness. And the plaintiff said: “In the name of Jesus, I call God as my final witness.”

Judge Chasez, unrattled, then said: “Sir, do you have anybody who is going to TAKE THE STAND and give testimony?”

The plaintiff responded: “Yes, ma’am, HE is present. HE is present in here right now.”

To which Judge Chasez responded: “I’m not going to get in an argument with you, Mr. Perro. If you have no further physical individual who is prepared to take the witness stand, then I need to know that and I need to know if you’re going to rest your case.”

Mr. Perro answered: “There’s no one else but GOD.”

Judge Chasez then granted the defense’s judgment as a matter of law.

So what will Judge Chasez do after spending the past nearly 30 years of her life working at the same place with such close friends? “I am going to spend my retirement with close friends on the northshore; become more involved with the Inn of Court on the northshore; get involved with the local food bank; and perhaps get involved in politics (something federal judges are prohibited from doing during their tenure as judge),” says Judge Chasez. “I truly feel that when one door closes, another one opens.” One thing is certain, she will continue to put miles on her trusted chariot of choice – her Toyota Prius – and she will continue to touch lives in a positive way. We all wish her well in retirement.

 

Peter J. Wanek is a Member/Partner of the McCranie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy, McDaniel & Welch, LLC firm in its New Orleans office.