Traffic Court clerk moves on, says court should too _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Longtime Traffic Court clerk Noel Cassanova retired this week. He worked there for nearly four decades.

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, the load was manageable enough: Cassanova says he was usually home by 3 p.m. A workday that ended at 3:30 was “like a marathon.”

Nonetheless, a couple of years later, a plan was hatched to double the number of judges, to four. With the help of Mayor Vic Schiro’s administration, it passed, and the court’s workdays soon got considerably shorter.

How much shorter? Cassanova remembers it like this: “I’m walking in my house — I’ll never forget this; I know what time it is, because ‘Hollywood Squares’ is on — at 10 o’clock in the morning. My wife says, ‘What are you doing here?’

“I said, ‘Well, I’m finished.’

“She said, ‘Come on, you can’t be finished.’ ”

Last week, Cassanova, 69, who as the longtime clerk of Traffic Court has probably processed a traffic fine at some point for just about every New Orleanian who drives a car, clocked out for good. He thinks it’s time for some of the other people at what’s been called the city’s most-overstaffed court to do the same.

A lot has changed at Traffic Court since Cassanova went to work for Judge Lambert Hassinger. The court moved from its old digs on North Rampart Street to its home on South Broad. And the business transacted inside has changed, too: Trials once occurred daily, often many of them, and the building crawled with motorcycle cops waiting to testify. These days, Traffic Court sees perhaps a few dozen trials each year, and police are in short supply.

That’s one of the major reasons that traffic courts — once commonplace — have been disappearing across the country. In those cities, the more serious cases once heard in traffic courts, like DWI charges, have been shifted to higher state or municipal courts. Routine traffic violation tickets often are issued by cameras now, and the business of adjudicating them usually is done by mail or by Internet — or, if there’s a dispute, by a hearing officer.

According to a 2014 story in The Wall Street Journal, New Orleans’ Traffic Court is the last of its kind in America.

“Everyone else got smart,” grumbles New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux.

Stick a fork in it?

Apart from Quatrevaux, plenty of other experts, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research and several key New Orleans legislators, think it’s time to stick a fork in Traffic Court as well — and with it, the local tradition of encouraging motorists to appear in person to cut plea deals on routine driving violations.

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 ranks of the reformers. The little criminal justice that is actually dispensed in Traffic Court these days could be handled by Municipal Court instead, he says.

Cassanova, a blunt-talking product of the 3rd Ward, regards high-minded efforts to scientifically measure how many judges are needed in the new combined court as “bull****.” The correct answer is six, says Cassanova, who has delivered his own reform blueprint 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?

While his methodology may differ, Cassanova’s vision is pretty close to the IG’s and the BGR’s.

“The Traffic Court would no longer exist,” he says. “What would happen is the DWIs, the other arrest cases, would go to the new Municipal Court. But all conventional traffic tickets — your illegal left turn, going 25 in a 20 zone — would all be handled administratively, which at this point is exactly how they’re handled now anyway.

“You’d create a city department, just like with parking tickets. There’d be a hearing officer if someone wanted to contest it. Why would you need a judge and a staff for that?”

Streamlining a hard sell

But consolidation, though it’s been discussed for years, has proved to be elusive. The biggest obstacle to reform has likely been the plummy nature of the judgeships themselves, which are part-time but still pay around $115,000 a year, making them among the most prized sinecures in local politics.

State Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, sponsored a bill last year that would have merged Traffic Court and Municipal Court and eliminated two of their eight judgeships. But it passed only after he agreed to remove the language shrinking the bench. The watered-down bill directed a task force to determine how many judicial seats will be needed on the court by the time the consolidation takes place, in 2017.

The task force, which has met several times and comprises 14 members, including all of the judges from the two courts, must turn in its report by March.

Bobby Jones, chief judge of Traffic Court and a vocal critic of consolidation, said there are plenty of reasons to take things slowly.

He said Traffic Court and Municipal Court soon will be physically separated as renovation of the courts’ joint facility on South Broad Street begins. The judges of Municipal Court plan to temporarily occupy the Juvenile Court quarters on Loyola Avenue after that court relocates to a new building.

That will leave Traffic Court on its own for the time being. Jones said the court is looking at using the old Algiers courthouse or renting space in the former Amoco Building on Poydras Street, among other options.

The physical separation of the two courts should “stymie the consolidation” talk for a while, Jones said. “My belief is that once the courts are separate, the efforts to actually merge the courts will stall, simply because they’re apart,” he said.

That’s not a bad thing in Jones’ view. He believes the courts can combine their two clerks’ offices, their accounting offices and their judicial administrators without difficulty, but he is not convinced that any further streamlining is desirable.

Increased workload

He said the studies that have attempted to assess how many judges are needed, like those by the IG and the BGR, use a formula that is outdated.

Moreover, he said, a new computer system implemented just last week at Traffic Court 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.”

Proponents of consolidation have long said city and state taxpayers could save millions by eliminating fluff from New Orleans’ courts. A report by Quatrevaux’s office estimated “conservatively” the savings that could be achieved by eliminating Traffic Court at $2.5 million a year.

That’s partly because of the cost of the judges themselves, but mostly because of their staffs, which can number 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 all the unneeded judgeships across the city were eliminated, along with the various staff positions that go with them, taxpayers could save $14 million a year, a BGR report found.

But BGR President Janet Howard said the Legislature has so far “assiduously avoided” doing the kind of analysis needed to trim the local judiciary to the appropriate level, whatever it is. She said that needs to stop.

“We’re adamant that the metrics suggest there are too many judges,” she said. “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.”

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 a plan this year to shrink New Orleans’ Juvenile Court.

Murray is barred by term limits from seeking re-election, and 2015 will be his final year in the Legislature.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a proponent of a court consolidation driven and designed by locals, worries that if merger efforts continue to be foiled, a merger that’s less to the city’s liking will be forced on it. While the costs of running local courts are shared by locals and the state, Traffic Court is a creature of state law, and it can be remade or undone by legislators.

“Right now, we control our own destiny, but what people don’t understand is 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.

He believes the judges of the merged court — however many there are ultimately — should have “concurrent jurisdiction” over all traffic and municipal matters. But he doesn’t think the judges and the staffs of the two courts need to be physically co-located for their functions to be merged.

Morrell takes a dim view of Jones’ contention that the separation of the two 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.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.