Becnel draws on lessons from family, judge to guide her
Published 12:00 am Friday, March 7, 2008
By KEVIN CHIRI
Editor and Publisher
LAPLACE – Just the thought of standing before a judge is intimidating in itself.
But even more so if you are a 16-year-old teenage boy who has a preconceived notion of the inequity a courtroom might hold for you.
However, teens who walk into the courtroom of Judge Mary Hotard Becnel have found things to be quite different.
As the judge peers out from her lofty position on the bench, and considers the verdict in what might be anything from a school absentee problem to a serious drug situation, Becnel is a judge that any teen—or any person for that matter—might hope to be in front of.
Becnel has served as judge in the 40th Judicial District Court since 1993, when she won an election in the unexpired term of Judge Thomas Malik. Since that time, she has won two elections without having any opposition.
And in that time on the bench, it has been her staunch determination to deliver a fair verdict for each and every person who has come before her. Sure, that may sound like a basic principle for any judge, and hopefully it is the least that any judge strives for.
But for Becnel it is much more than simply listening and rendering a decision.
For Becnel, there is a clear connection to not one man, but two, who taught her at a young age the importance of being fair, showing love and compassion, and making sure every person felt their day in court was a time that they were special, and they were heard loud and clear.
From the beginning, it was a close bond with her own father that taught her each and every person was special. And as the oldest of seven children to Edmond “Sue” Hotard and Delora Mary Hotard, Becnel said her father had a way to make every child he had feel like “I was the favorite.”
“He was so wonderful,” she said, making the reporter promise he would not report about the tears she was dabbing from her eyes. “He was the type of dad who made me feel like I was the favorite. But he did that for all the kids. We all thought we were the favorite.”
The bond with her dad was a remarkable one that any child could only wish for in a father. When she decided to run for judge, her dad campaigned with her and might have even won the election for her.
“When I was out meeting people, they would see my dad and say ‘oh, that’s your dad? Yea, you have my vote.’ And yet he was not a political person. He would just make you feel so special. Even when I got older and was working, we would go fishing together just like when I was small,” she said.
When Becnel got her first job in a law office, becoming a court reporter for highly-respected Judge C. William Bradley, it provided the rest of the foundation for the future judge, showing her first hand the way justice was to be administered from the bench.
“Judge Bradley was a man who taught me to listen to every person, and treat every person fairly. He made sure everyone felt like they had their day in court, and I have always tried to do the same thing. He was like a second dad to me, and taught me reverence for the law,” she summed up. “Working with him in the courtroom, it all seemed to be so important. And I always thought he did the right thing.”
With those kind of examples, Becnel has developed a reputation as a top family court judge who makes sure anyone entering and leaving her courtroom—whether it be a scared 16-year-old boy, or a wealthy businessman—has the same experience of fair treatment from the bench.
Named for her Mother
Mary Hotard Becnel was actually given the name of her mother, Delora Mary. The judge carries the same name, except backward, as her name is actually Mary Delora.
While her father gave her the loving and secure hand of a good dad, she had a mother who was always encouraging and finding time for each of the seven kids, no matter how busy she was.
“I was always amazed how my mom was able to do everything for seven kids. Like my dad, she was a mother who always encouraged us kids, and was the person who really pushed me in the direction of the courtroom when she saw I wasn’t happy in what I was doing,” she said.
Becnel’s father worked his life at Shell and died in 1999 at the age of 74, while her mother is still living now at the age of 80.
When Becnel graduated high school, her parents wanted her to go to college although neither of them had. And even though they offered to pay for college, she refused to allow them.
“They wanted to pay for my college, but I could never have let them since they had their hands full. Mom stayed home with the kids and dad was the only one bringing home a paycheck to support seven children,” she said.
So Becnel began going to college at UNO at night, and working during the day in the mailroom at Shell, where her dad had helped her get a job.
“I was so unhappy, I would cry every night,” she said, laughing about it now. “One day when I went home, I again told my mom how unhappy I was and she was just determined to help me do something about it.”
Her mother saw an ad in the paper for a court reporter at Judge Bradley’s office, and urged Becnel to apply. She got the job and immediately began finding herself fascinated with the judicial system.
“I met a lot of people, got to go to different courtrooms and found the judicial system so interesting,” she said. “I just loved it, but I think it was mainly because of Judge Bradley and the compassion he had for people in his courtroom that I became so fascinated with the system.”
Graduation and Danny Becnel
She continued to work during the day and go to school at night, very slowly working towards her degree that seemed like it would take forever to get. Then she met and married Danny Becnel, the high-powered class action lawyer of today here in St. John Parish, who immediately helped her finish college by taking more classes. At the age of 30, after 10 years in college, she graduated and was ready for her own law business.
Originally beginning to work in Danny’s law practice, she stayed there two years until going out on her own, and becoming a specialist in family law.
“I was one of only a few women in the River Parishes then, so I think that helped people see me as a good family law attorney,” she said. “But I think the reason I was good is because I had learned to really listen to people.”
Now with almost 30 years of licensed practice behind her, Becnel has developed some strong feelings about marriage, divorce and the family unit in today’s society.
“The main thing I see now is that people just don’t try very hard anymore to make a marriage work,” she said. “Young people especially figure if they have a fight, they will just separate.
“Divorce has such a high price, and people don’t think about the kids. They don’t consider the consequences and they are so willing to change partners so easily,” she added. “I see so many kids with so many different fathers or mothers that it is heartbreaking.”
Becnel said she sees so many juveniles come before her who have no sense of family stability, making it easy to see why so many teens are getting into trouble.
“There is no strong family unit for so many these days,” she pointed out. “Kids need a father and a mother figure. Without that, you see so many more teen pregnancies, and the worst thing about it is you see their kids do the same thing.”
She noted the ever increasing number of grandparents coming into her courtroom, now acting as parents for a second time. Whether there is a way to turn around the cycle, Becnel did her best to sound optimistic.
“I hate to say it’s hopeless, so you just have to believe that some good can come from families that are willing to try,” she said. “We have so many people trying to help in our system, but it still doesn’t work if kids return to the same bad family situations, especially those involving drugs.”
A Run for Judge
When Becnel heard in 1993 that Judge Thomas Malik was going to retire from his seat on the 40th District bench, still with three years remaining in his term, she knew that the dream of her life was before her.
“I never voiced to people that I wanted to be a judge because women back then just didn’t say that,” she said. “But I had always wanted to be a judge, and when I saw Judge Malik retiring, I knew this was my time to try.”
Her longtime mentor Judge Bradley, along with her husband, gave her the support she needed, and she ended winning the race to finish the final three years of Malik’s term. Even more impressively was the fact that she ran against five people, including a state senator, former judge and former state officials before winning in a close runoff. Since then, she has had no opposition in the race for the past two, six-year terms.
“I think women are really good judges because we are better listeners and bring a balance to the courtroom,” she remarked. “I prefer this, as opposed to just working as a lawyer, since I am in charge of both sides of the case and spend so much time on every case, that I feel sure of my decisions for what is best for the people involved.”
Even now, after serving for over 15 years on the bench, she is excited to go to work each day.
“I still feel like it is a terrific honor to be a judge, and I have an undying gratitude to the people who have elected me so I can go to work doing this each day,” she said. “I still love it.”
As for marrying probably the most well-known, and perhaps most misunderstood man in St. John Parish, Becnel agreed to do this interview, knowing she would be asked questions about him.
“Never a dull moment,” she said with a smile, when her husband’s name came up.
But when pressed to talk about the famous St. John attorney, Becnel showed her sly side.
“I agreed that you could ask questions about Danny,” she said with a smirk. “But I never said I would answer the questions. Honestly, I like to keep my personal life to myself.”
However when pressed just a bit about what is probably the understandable criticism that comes the way of a famous, class action attorney like Becnel who wins multi-million dollar lawsuits, the judge did have one statement to make.
“All I will say about Danny, and the criticism that comes with what he does, is that no one realizes how hard he works, or how much he does for other people,” she said. “And he is more generous than anyone will every know.”
As for the judge, she also has a life outside the courtroom, which has always been connected in a big way to the arts.
“When I was young, my mother paid a woman $1 an hour to teach me the arts, since she saw my love for it,” Becnel said. “When I grew up, we had none of that here in the River Parishes, but now I am passionate about trying to build arts in this area, and exposing kids to the arts.”
She still loves to read and garden, and also has a passion for the French language, which she has worked on learning for the past 10-12 years.
With an election this fall for her third full term, Becnel said the thought of stepping down is nowhere close.
“I will do this until I grow tired of it, but right now I never even say that,” she said. “The courtroom, even from the early years in college when I worked in Judge Bradley’s court, has been a part of my entire life. I don’t even know how I could begin to step away from it.”