Former New Orleans District Attorney to lead criminal division for Attorney General

Leon Cannizzaro will take over for AG ally who resigned after sexual harassment allegations

Orleans Parish Courthouse

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has tapped former Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to co-lead the criminal division in the Department of Justice at a time when the office is in some turmoil.

Cannizzaro will follow  Pat Magee, a friend of Landry’s who  left the office  this year after being accused of mistreating women in the criminal division. Another high-ranking official in the criminal division, Matthew Derbes, resigned earlier this week, saying Landry was targeting him for complaining about Magee’s behavior.

Cannizzaro will technically be running the criminal division with a co-director, Marty White, who is expected to retire relatively soon. At that point, Cannizzaro will take over running the division himself, Landry said.

Landry said he selected Cannizzaro based on his experience and resume. Cannizzaro spent 12 years as New Orleans’s  top prosecutor, but also worked as a state district judge, appellate judge and public defender. Landry also noted that Cannizzaro had served in office as a Democrat. The attorney general is a conservative Republican.

While Landry and Cannizzaro may be from different political parties, they share a hard-nosed approach to criminal justice issues. Cannizzaro was frustrated by Louisiana’s bipartisan embrace of a softer, more sympathetic approach to crime and punishment. He became not only out of step with left-leaning New Orleans but also Louisiana’s moderate Democratic governor and state lawmakers in both parties on these issues.

Landry and Cannizzaro were among the most high-profile elected officials to oppose much of the statewide efforts to reduce the prison population that were initiated in 2017. Specifically, Cannizzaro was wary of changes to Louisiana’s habitual offender law, which allowed prosecutors  to subject people to extremely long prison sentences for relatively minor crimes. He also expressed unhappiness  with legal changes mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court that required Louisiana to show mercy on people serving life sentences for crimes they committed as minors.

As the district attorney in New Orleans, Cannizzaro faced criticism when his office was caught sending fake subpoenas to witnesses, in an attempt to try and force them to appear in court. He declined to run for reelection in 2020, perhaps sensing that New Orleans wanted to go in another direction. His successor, Jason Williams, has made reducing the number of prosecutions his office pursues — particularly for low-level crimes — a top priority.