The only traffic court left in this country is in New Orleans, where an authoritative voice has joined the call for its abolition.
Noel Cassanova certainly knows what he is talking about when he says the court is surplus to requirements, because he just retired as its clerk. Now that he has nothing to lose, he does not flinch from stating the truth.
When Cassanova got his first job at the court in 1965, his boss was Judge Lambert Hassinger, who stoutly defended the court against complaints that its scores of employees were drawing full-time salaries from the public purse when a full day’s work would have been a novel experience for the lot of them.
But Hassinger had a change of heart when he failed to win re-election in 1988. No sooner had the result been declared than the scales fell from Hassinger’s eyes and he could see that the critics had been right all along. The court’s four judges were two too many, Hassinger opined in a letter to then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, and they all handed out too many jobs.
Connoisseurs of the boondoggle have always been in awe of Traffic Court, where two judges show up in the morning and the other two take over for the afternoon. Each comes with a retinue that the most distinguished jurist might envy. The law says that each shall appoint his own “minute clerk, stenographer, crier, court reporter” and such other staff as he deems necessary. Each judge, thus, has 10 or 11 jobs in his gift.
It cannot be seriously argued that such a penny-ante court could not get along without, for instance, four criers. The payroll also includes not only the clerk of court but a judicial administrator.
The judges live high on the hog, drawing $115,000 a year while being free to maintain private law practices in their ample spare time. If their side work requires them to skip a shift on the bench, an ad hoc takes over. They get take-home cars, long vacations and generous fringe benefits. By any measure, they are well-rewarded for bringing their legal acumen to bear on the threat to society posed by drivers making improper left turns.
If this was an affront to the taxpayer in Hassinger’s time — Cassanova recalls getting home from work at 10 a.m. in those days — at least court hearings were held daily. Nowadays, not only do we have traffic cameras generating uncontested tickets, but violators who are summoned to court are almost always offered a plea deal. Commit a moving violation, and you can get away with admitting an imaginary malfunction in your tail light and your insurance won’t go up. The truth is strongly discouraged around here.
Now the Legislature had decreed that Traffic Court will be merged with Municipal Court, but could not bring itself to eliminate supernumeraries from the bench. A task force is supposed to determine the optimum size of the consolidated court, but since the eight current Traffic and Municipal Court judges constitute a majority of its members, a drastic reduction is unlikely to be recommended.
Cassanova figures the correct number of seats on the consolidated court would be six, and has, thus, reached the same conclusion as his old boss did 27 years ago.
New Orleans suffers from a glut of judgeships across the board and could abolish 25 of them, saving $14 million a year, without any loss of efficiency, according to the Bureau of Governmental Research. That isn’t going to happen overnight, for the proposition that Louisiana has too many elected officials will always be a hard sell in Baton Rouge.
But Traffic Court is the obvious place to start. According to New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, doing away with it would save taxpayers $2.5 million a year. The case for doing so is clearly overwhelming.
One of the few who does not agree is Bobby Jones, which is not surprising, since he is the court’s chief judge. Traffic and Municipal Court share digs at the moment but will soon be temporarily separated while renovations are carried out, which should “stymie the consolidation,” Jones says. That is clearly wishful thinking.
Technological advances since Hassinger’s day were presumably expected to make the life of a Traffic Court judge even easier, but Jones said a new computer system has just added to his burdens. Get that man a quill pen.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.