Samantha Kelly, Rotarian of the week and clerk of Winnfield’s City Court, introduced the special guest of the Rotary Club on July 14, 2021, Winnfield City Judge Keith Gates, also a Rotarian. Gates, who was elected without opposition last year and took office on January 1, 2021, spoke about the jurisdiction of Winnfield City Court and the division of duties between himself and Eighth Judicial District Court Judge Anastasia Wiley, who was also elected without opposition last year.
Judge Gates was raised in Goldonna. After completing a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration at Northwestern State University and a juris doctorate and a Bachelor of Civil Law degree at LSU Law Center, he clerked for a Louisiana Supreme Court justice, engaged in private practice in Lafayette, and helped found a legal organization called Cause of Action in Washington, D.C. Then he returned to this area and went into private practice as the Gates Law Firm, serving as Winnfield City Attorney for the last several years until his election as City Judge in 2020.
Gates explained to the group that Winnfield City Court was formed in about 1952 and was granted jurisdiction—the authority to decide legal disputes and criminal prosecutions—over the territory encompassing the town/city of Winnfield and any ward in Winn Parish which touches a boundary of Winnfield. Of Winn Parish’s seven wards, six borders on Winnfield, and are thus included within the territorial jurisdiction of Winnfield’s city court. The only ward in Winn Parish which does not fall within the jurisdiction of city court is the one which includes the area around Dodson and Sikes.
The legal matters within the city court’s jurisdiction, according to Judge Gates, include criminal misdemeanors (offenses punishable by incarceration up to six months). These are mostly traffic tickets, but also including disturbing the peace and assault. Felony matters (punishable by more than six months at hard labor) are prosecuted in district court. All DWI’s (driving while intoxicated) are heard by the district court as well, at the discretion of the district attorney.
As for noncriminal matters, the city court has jurisdiction over evictions, as well as debt collections, recovery of leased property, and other contract disputes and personal injury matters involving amounts up to $30,000. Jury trials are not available to litigants in city court, so most personal injury matters involving claims for more than $20,000—the amount which must be in dispute to qualify for a trial by jury—are filed in district court.
Judge Gates explained that the city judge and the district judge both have jurisdiction over and responsibility for magisterial matters within the city and the six wards covered by city court, and he and District Judge Anastasia Wiley share those duties. Magisterial matters include things like signing arrest warrants, holding probable cause hearings (48-hour hearings) for arrests made without a warrant, hearings to appoint an attorney to represent a defendant who cannot afford to pay for one (72-hour hearings), setting bonds for criminal defendants, and signing instantly effective protective orders. As city judge, Gates sets bonds for criminal offenses occurring within the city, while the district judge sets bonds on all offenses occurring within the parish outside the city limits. Judge Gates handles all 72-hour hearings assigned to him by telephone, three days a week.
Gates said that, while he is allowed to maintain a private practice, he devotes most of his time to his duties as city court judge.
To see if he could determine if COVID-19 has had an impact on the matters proceeding through Winnfield City Court, Judge Gates reviewed the number of filings in his court, the Eighth Judicial District Court and courts statewide for 2019 and 2020 and found that filings in 2020 in the district court went down by 21%, statewide down about 22%, and in Winnfield City Court down only about 8%. He said there seemed to be a lot more traffic violations, which he attributes to an increase in tickets by both the City Marshall and the Winnfield Police Department. He complimented WPD on the excellent job it is doing in patrolling the streets.
A lively question-and-answer session revealed that Winn Parish has six justices of the peace, who are not required to be attorneys to be elected, but who can perform marriage ceremonies and have concurrent jurisdiction with the city and district courts. It was also revealed that one who gets a traffic ticket in Dodson, keeping in mind that the ward Dodson is in does not touch the border of Winnfield, must go to Dodson’s mayor’s court if he wishes to contest the charges. The mayor’s court is not a court of record, meaning a record of the trial of the matter is not preserved. A defendant must appeal the findings of the mayor’s court to the Eighth Judicial District Court, that is, Judge Wiley’s court, and the case is tried as if the mayor’s court has not heard it because there is no record
At the completion of the “question and answer” portion of the program, the meeting was adjourned with the Rotary motto, “Service above self!”
The Rotary Club of Winnfield meets every Wednesday at Noon for lunch at Lynda’s Country Kitchen. For more information about the Rotary Club of Winnfield, you may contact President, Jodi Taylor (832) 573-5085. You can also find club information on Facebook at Rotary Club of Winnfield Facebook Page or online at Rotary.org.
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