Levine: From watching the court to running for judge

With crime and the local judicial system “in crisis,” Simone Levine is running for Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Section A judge in the March 25 election as someone “who is going to know the courtroom from every angle” and use a community-based approach with a balance of fairness and justice.

In addition to her legal and law enforcement experience, both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney, she is a survivor of childhood violence, and understands “how difficult it is for crime survivors to speak to law enforcement, and how so many victims never report crimes” because of that.

As judge, “it is incredibly important for me to ensure the community is involved in every stage of court proceedings,” she said. “I believe in absolute transparency.” While some judges are trying to remove the cameras that were installed in courtrooms due to Covid, “I want those cameras up as long as possible,” with public safety being the only exception to access.

That push for transparency isn’t a surprise, given her years with Court Watch NOLA and as a police monitor.

She says that New Orleans has not taken care of the community in terms of mental health. In other places, there are numerous interventions that take place before acts of violence occur.

A short term solution for the current problem is that when there are acts of retaliatory violence or lack of impulse control, “bail needs to be set. We’ve got to look at the risk level an individual poses to the community.”

A major issue is that there is “a small group of individuals who are involved in a retaliatory circle.”

She currently works in the District Attorney’s office, prosecuting “some of our dirtiest and deadliest crimes the city has had.” She noted that retaliatory violence and witness intimidation are real, and not often discussed.

“We are responsible for ensuring that witnesses and victims are provided as much protection as possible so when they are engaged in a courageous act of working with law enforcement, sometimes against the views of their community, that they are protected in that process,” she said.

There has to be confidence in the system so that victims and witnesses feel comfortable coming forward, and input from the community as to whether a defendant poses a threat to the community.

Long term, there needs to be a greater emphasis on mental health programs, Levine said.

She said there are many programs not being used by the city or the courts, and often judges just don’t have the resources to direct people to help.

Such programs can disrupt the retaliatory cycle, she said. “Most defendants have been traumatized themselves” but have never been provided resources. “Often defendants are crime victims who have taken the law into their own hands because they are not confident the system will help them, and they often turn to substance abuse.”

She would like to see social workers in courtrooms, as a resource to help with interrupting crime.

In 2015, she became the leader of Court Watch NOLA, “ensuring the courts themselves were not a machine that ran over people, that it was a body of government that ensured our safety and ensured the constitutional rights of those in front of the court as well as victims.”

There were many problems to confront. She said there was a rape survivor who was “too scared to come testify against the man who raped her,” and the victim was jailed for nine days because of that. There was a policy where the District Attorney could ask the court for a warrant if a crime victim did not respond to outreach from the DA’s office, leading to the jailing of victims. Levine said the majority of domestic violence and sex crime victims don’t report their crimes, and the DA’s policy would only further deter victims from reporting.

Not only that, there were cases where assistant DAs would create phony subpoenas, threatening fines or jail to victims who did not come to the office. Real subpoenas could be signed only by the clerk of court of a judge, and the Fifth Circuit ruled the practice usurped the role of the judiciary.

The group also found judges were not enforcing existing gun control laws, especially hazardous in cases of domestic violence. They convinced the New Orleans Police Department to ask victims of domestic violence, while still at the scene, whether the perpetrator had access to guns.

They also blew the whistle on a judge who required defendants to wear ankle monitors in unnecessary circumstances, often despite prosecution objections. It turned out the judge’s biggest campaign contributor, who had also lent him money, was the contractor for the monitors.

The defendants had to pay $10 per day for the monitors, often up to a year. “These were people who often couldn’t pay to keep the lights on,” she noted, then the company would go after their family, who often were victims, threatening them with jail time if fees were not paid to the judge’s campaign donor, she said.

She has extensive experience working with law enforcement from her time as deputy police monitor under Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson. She took in complaints about police neglect and misconduct, and monitored interviews of police officers who used force against citizens, ensuring “nothing would be swept under the rug by the department.”

Before that, she practiced criminal defense for a decade, and worked as a public defender.

Levine says she comes at the process “from a pragmatic place, a well-rounded place and a place where I am trying to find solutions.”

She said the court needs a judge who “really knows the system from all different places.”

Levine has been active at Shir Chadash and Touro Synagogue, along with the National Council of Jewish Women. She has been on the Avodah board for 10 years, and last year was honored at the Avodah Partners in Justice jazz brunch.

She faces Leon Roche and Diedre Pierce Kelly in the March 25 vote.