Back in 1965, when Noel Cassanova was hired to work at New Orleans Traffic Court, the court had only two judges but, he says, “10 times as much work” as it does now.
Even then, said Cassanova, 69, he was usually home by 3 p.m. A workday that ended at 3:30 was “like a marathon.”
Workdays got shorter when, during Mayor Vic Schiro’s administration, the number of judges was doubled.
Cassanova remembers walking into his house at 10 a.m. “I know what time it is, because ‘Hollywood Squares’ is on,” he said. His wife asked what he was doing home.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m finished,”‘ he recounted. “She said, ‘Come on, you can’t be finished.”‘
Cassanova recently clocked out for good. The retired clerk thinks it’s time to cut the size of what’s been called the city’s most overstaffed court.
A lot has changed at Traffic Court since Cassanova went to work for Judge Lambert Hassinger. There used to be daily trials, often many a day. These days, Traffic Court sees perhaps a few dozen trials a year.
That’s a major reason that traffic courts, once commonplace, have disappeared nationwide. DWI charges and other more serious cases once heard in traffic courts have been shifted to higher state or municipal courts. Routine traffic tickets often are issued by cameras and usually are adjudicated by mail, by Internet, or, if there’s a dispute, by a hearing officer.
New Orleans’ Traffic Court is the last of its kind in America, according to a 2014 story in The Wall Street Journal.
“Everyone else got smart,” grumbles New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux.
Plenty of others, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research and several key New Orleans legislators, agree that it’s time to shut down Traffic Court.
Cassanova likes to say he never missed a day in Traffic Court, even stopping by to check on things on the day of his mother’s funeral. But he has somewhat reluctantly joined the reformers’ ranks. The little criminal justice actually dispensed in Traffic Court these days could be handled by Municipal Court, he says.
He scoffs at high-minded efforts to scientifically measure how many judges are needed in the new combined court. The number is six, says Cassanova, who has told that to Landrieu and several legislators.
“All these studies that have been made … you’ve got a guy in the middle of this storm all these years,” he muses. Why not listen to him?
STREAMLINING A HARD SELL
Though consolidation has been discussed for years, it has proved elusive. The biggest obstacle has likely been the fact that the judgeships are part-time but pay around $115,000 a year.
State Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, sponsored a bill last year to merge the courts and eliminate two of the eight total judgeships. It passed only after he agreed to let a task force decide how many judges will be needed.
The 14-member task force includes all eight judges.
It must report by March. Consolidation is scheduled in 2017.
Bobby Jones, chief judge of Traffic Court, said consolidation efforts are likely to stall when they move into different buildings so their joint quarters can be renovated.
He said the courts can combine their clerks’ offices, accounting offices and judicial administrators without difficulty but he doesn’t think further streamlining is desirable.
He said past studies to assess the numbers of judges use an outdated formula, and the Traffic Court’s new computer system substantially increases judges’ workload.
“Now I’m on the bench for four or five hours a day, because every case requires my John Hancock,” Jones said. “I would assume with this new case-management system that is so judicial-intensive, reduction of judges is going to go out the window.”
Consolidation supporters say it could save millions of dollars. Quatrevaux’s office “conservatively” estimated such savings at $2.5 million a year.
The bulk of the cost is in the judges’ staffs of 10 or so for each section. “Each of the judges comes with an imperial retinue of courtiers and barkers, for a court that doesn’t do anything,” Quatrevaux said.
If every unneeded judgeship and associated staff position in New Orleans were eliminated, taxpayers could save $14 million a year, according to BGR.
But BGR President Janet Howard said the Legislature has so far “assiduously avoided” doing the analysis needed to decide the number of judges. “The Legislature owes it to the public to get to the bottom of it, to figure out how many judges are needed and deal with it, so we can redeploy those resources,” she said.
RESISTANCE TO REFORM
Last year’s consolidation bill was defanged at the behest of state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, who also has led resistance to other attempts to reduce judgeships, including one to shrink New Orleans’ Juvenile Court.
Term limits mean 2015 will be Murray’s final year in the Senate.
State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a consolidation supporter, said continuing to foil mergers could bring one less to the city’s liking.
“Traffic Court is a state court,” Morrell said. “Should a governor or other body decide they want to do it (consolidation) themselves, they can do whatever they want.”
Pushing a measure that forces belt-tightening in New Orleans and saves the state money would be smart politics in Baton Rouge, Morrell said.
They don’t need to be in the same place to merge their work, he said, and every judge should handle both municipal and traffic court duties.
Morrell takes a dim view of Jones’ contention that separating the courts should slow consolidation discussions.
“I don’t know if that’s a delay tactic, but if it is, it’s a really dumb one,” Morrell said.
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