NEW ORLEANS — After 42 years in office as a criminal court judge, appeals court judge and, since 2008, Orleans Parish District Attorney, Leon Cannizzaro is leaving the political and public stage.
Announcing his retirement Friday afternoon in the final hours before election qualifying closed, Cannizzaro’s decision not to seek re-election leaves three major candidates vying to replace him: retired judges Keva Landrum and Arthur Hunter, and City Council President Jason Williams.
“I have proudly devoted the past 42 years of my life to the cause of making New Orleans a safer place to live, work, raise families and visit,” Cannizzaro wrote. “But after long discussions with my wife and family, it became apparent that my interest in serving another term has waned, outweighed by a desire to spend more time with my family, especially my nine grandchildren born since I first took office. This was not an easy decision, but it is the one with which I’m most at peace.”
Cannizzaro, 67, departs after a successful career in which he was undefeated as a candidate, but he leaves a decidedly more mixed reputation as the city’s top prosecutor amid changing times and wholesale calls for criminal justice reform.
His declining popularity was tied to a number of controversies, including his office’s continued use of so-called “fake subpoenas” designed to compel reluctant witnesses to appear in court, as well as the use of material witness warrants to arrest some victims who refused to testify. He also drew intense criticism for doggedly – but unsuccessfully – pursuing new cases against defendants who had been exonerated, even when the faulty convictions dated back to before he took office.
“It’s safe to say that popular opinion started turning against him in about 2016 after his use of fake subpoenas and arresting material witnesses,” WWL-TV political analyst Clancy Dubos said. “But on a political note, candidates are like canned foods that have a “best-used-by” date. Many politicians don’t recognize when their date has expired, but I think Cannizzaro used wisdom to see that the time had come for him to step aside.”
Cannizzaro, a Lakeview resident, was a native son who graduated from De La Salle High School, University of New Orleans as an undergraduate, then Loyola Law School. He worked as an assistant district attorney, and briefly as a public defender, before being elected to the criminal court bench.
As a no-nonsense judge, Cannizzaro took pride in moving cases quickly off his docket, frequently presiding over more trials each year than any other judge at the courthouse at Tulane and Broad.
Cannizzaro took the reins at the DA’s office after winning a hotly contested race in 2008 in which he faced defense attorney Ralph Capitelli in a run-off after the two dispatched Williams, then a political newcomer, in the primary.
Cannizzaro won a second term in 2014 when his opponent, Lionel “Lon” Burns, was ruled ineligible to run.
His decision to retire instead of seeking a third term had been rumored for weeks amid polls showing him trailing his announced challengers in head-to-head competition, but he kept political watchers guessing until the last hours.
“It’s definitely the end of an era not only in the DA’s office, but also at Tulane and Broad where Leon has been a presence for more than four decades,” Dubos said. He helped bring the office back to life after Hurricane Katrina and he definitely left his mark on the criminal justice system.”
In his send-off message, Cannizzaro said he takes pride in establishing a robust diversion program for non-violent or first-time offenders, but on the other end of the spectrum “taking more than 700 New Orleans killers off the street and dismantling numerous street gangs.”
“I will finish my term knowing I gave my all to this city in more than four decades as an assistant district attorney, a deputy public defender, a judge on two different courts, and as District Attorney,” he wrote. “It has been my great honor and privilege to be entrusted with serving this community for so long. Finally, I hope and pray that God will continue to bless the people of New Orleans.”