Judge sued over church sentences retires after 30-plus years

Judge offered defendants church attendance in lieu of a fine or jail time

By Johnathan Manning
American Press

LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) - As he leaves the bench, Judge Tommy Quirk says his greatest accomplishment on the Lake Charles City Court is the one that the state Judiciary Commission thought he should be disciplined for.

In lieu of a fine or jail time, Quirk has offered church attendance, moral and ethical training through organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or community service.

"I don't think anybody can argue with the fact that if you go to church on a regular basis, that will have a positive influence in your life," Quirk said. "So many people pay the fine... But does it really teach you anything?"

At first, church attendance was the only alternative he offered. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, saying he was mixing church and state.

In 1997, the Louisiana Judiciary Commission recommended suspending Quirk without pay for a year.

The Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously rejected the recommendation, saying Quirk's disagreement with the commission about the sentence's constitutionality did not equal judicial misconduct.

Quirk said then that he didn't see the ruling as vindication but was happy to get the guidelines couched in a footnote: the sentences might be "less constitutionally questionable" if he offered an alternative to church, such as community service or a secular morality or ethics program.

He did.

Alternative sentencing is important, said Quirk, who retired Dec. 31 after more than 30 years on the bench.

"While jail is sometimes necessary, it doesn't always teach them what they need to do," Quirk said in an interview before he retired. "If you're going to because of alcohol or substance abuse, going to jail will not make you sober."

Quirk is also proud of the new City Court building, which he said was designed to efficiently serve the public.

"At least I got to enjoy it for a year," Quirk said. "It was a long, hard fight.

Quirk was elected to Lake Charles City Court in 1979 when he was 34 years old. It was his second try. He was opposed only once.

Much of that time was spent alongside fellow City Court Judge John Hood. Although they are five years apart, the two judges' lives have paralleled. They grew up on the same block, attending the same schools from elementary school through LSU law school. They were members of the same fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha.

Like his father, uncle and older brother, he first earned a degree in accounting. He said he went to law school because "I didn't want to be the fourth man on the totem pole."

In 1988, he said, he successfully confronted alcoholism and became a Christian.

"It the most fantastic experience I've ever had and it's the most life-changing experience I've ever had, because I had to start, number one, looking at reality, and number two, realizing there was a spiritual side of me that was lacking," Quirk said. "Let's face it, you can't read the Bible, go to church and try and be Christ-like and not realize that only by the grace of God, there go I. It gave me a perspective that nothing else could have given me."

He now leads a 12-step program twice a week, he said.

What's next? "I have no idea," he said. "Whenever one door closes, God generally opens another. I'm waiting to see what door opens. I don't plan on sitting at home in a rocking chair."

He didn't retire by choice but because state law requires judges to retire when they turn 70 years old. It's an archaic law, he said.

"Seventy is no longer old," Quirk said. "It used to be and I can understand at one point why they would have thought that was a good age to pick."

Quirk is certain that his successor, Jamie Bice, will be a good judge.

"He's well-qualified; he's got a good heart," Quirk said. "I feel confident in his taking over my position, that the people of Lake Charles will continue to have the type of service that I always wanted to give."

Published: Mon, Jan 05, 2015


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