A stampede of lawyers is battling it out for a seat on the bench in one of New Orleans’ most derided courthouses, just months before a legislative commission is set to recommend whether the very judgeship they’re fighting for should be abolished.
The Traffic Court bench has long been attractive for politicians, not for prestige but for its part-time hours and six-figure pay.
Eight lawyers are now running in the Oct. 19 election to replace retired Judge Ron Sholes. Two of them are likely to meet in a Nov. 16 runoff.
Political watchers say the race is a complete toss-up: Any of the candidates could win in a low-profile special election unlikely to lure many voters to the polls.
The candidates’ platforms are varied, from some promising to rein in the city’s widely scorned traffic camera ticketing program to two running as reformers who pledge to fix a court they say is broken.
Traffic Court has, for years, been criticized as a breeding ground for corruption and incompetence. For three years, it went unnoticed that a single accountant billed the court more than $1.2 million. Four employees pleaded guilty to stealing money and fixing tickets in 2007; another was convicted of federal bribery charges. Sholes himself was criticized for dismissing troves of tickets for the law firm that employed him.
Judges have acknowledged that there is no oversight over the court’s finances.
Meanwhile, studies have piled up indicating that the city needs far fewer Traffic Court judges than the four it currently pays more than $100,000 a year each.
Both the city’s Office of Inspector General and the Bureau of Government Research have recommended whittling that number down to just one judge, thereby saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
But a similar effort to reduce the number of judges on the city’s Juvenile Court bench, considered to be just as bloated, failed in the Legislature this year.
That bill was pushed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu as a way to ease the city into more sweeping court reforms to follow. The mayor agreed to shelve his plans to merge the city’s Traffic and Municipal courts to help the Juvenile Court reform pass. But the bill still failed.
Sens. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, and Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, opposed it. Both sit on a judicial commission analyzing the number of judges needed across the state. They asked the Legislature to wait for their report, due in February, before deciding to slim down the city’s benches. Critics suggested some legislators were just fearful of offending the judiciary.
Landrieu’s office said the mayor still plans to push for a consolidation of the city’s courts.
“Numerous reports show that consolidating Traffic and Municipal Courts would improve efficiency and save taxpayer money,” the Mayor’s Office said in a statement. “It is our hope that the commission and the Legislature make common sense reforms to the criminal justice system.”
But despite the impending possibility of cuts to the bench, eight hopefuls are vying for the single open seat. They are former Magistrate Commissioner Marie Bookman, Assistant City Attorney Demetrie Ford, Traffic Court crier Patrick Giraud, former Louisiana Justice Institute vice president Steven Jupiter, civil litigation attorney Richard Perque, attorney Nanak Rai, television talk show host D. Nicole Sheppard and one-time temporary Traffic Court Judge Clint Smith.
All eight said that even if the Legislature decides to require that all of the city’s judges work full-time, they would still want the job. In fact, all said they plan to work full-time on their own, supplementing the court’s half-day dockets with outreach into the community, such as visiting schools to educate children about the dangers of drunken driving.
They all promise to actually put on the robe and take the bench, unlike some current judges who typically defer management of their dockets to their staff.
They also all pledged to turn down the taxpayer-funded car and gas card each Traffic Court judge is offered.
The candidates’ finances vary. As of early September, the latest figures required to be reported to the state, Giraud, Perque and Smith had brought in the most campaign contributions, between $33,000 and $39,000 each. Bookman had raised just over $17,000, Jupiter around $15,000, Sheppard $8,000 and Ford just over $7,000. Rai had raised nothing.
But several were able to loan tens of thousands to their own campaigns, sharply raising the amount of money being spent on lawn signs and billboards.
Rai, Bookman, Smith, Jupiter and Perque have all borrowed more than $20,000 from their personal bank accounts, with Smith and Perque at the top, both spending more than $50,000 of their own money.
Bookman, who served as a magistrate commissioner at Criminal District Court for more than a decade, is billing herself as the most qualified woman running for a judgeship no woman has ever held.
She promises to implement programs to help defendants with substance-abuse issues, be tough on repeat drunken drivers, and work with the city and the state to encourage bicycling in the city.
“I will be accessible, I will be fair and I will be accountable,” she says. “A woman has never been elected, and I think it’s time. I’m the most qualified woman in this race. My record speaks for itself: I am the only candidate with 12 years of judicial experience. I know how to move a docket, how to run a courtroom. It’s different when you put the robe on. It made me a better judge.”
Ford is running on his experience. He has worked as an assistant city attorney in Traffic Court since 2002, prosecuting violators, and as a substitute judge in Juvenile Court.
He acknowledges the problems that have long plagued Traffic Court, saying the entire operation is in constant disarray, with files frequently lost, judges failing to give direction and an archaic case management system that relies on paper files and handwritten tickets. He says he helped to secure a grant to build a digital filing system to bring the court into the modern era.
He also thinks fines are too steep for minor offenses, and says the court should implement expungement and diversion programs for low-level and first-time offenders. “We need someone to get in there and fix it, make it more efficient and stable. I think that I have the best plan to do that,” he said.
Giraud, the son of a longtime Traffic Court judge, Thomas Giraud, says he was all but raised at the courthouse. He has worked there in a variety of capacities for 26 years and believes he has the best perspective on the dysfunctionality of the court and how to turn it from an embarrassment into a functioning institution of justice.
“I’m on a mission to correct what used to be a great public service that you could be proud of. I’ve seen it denigrated and drug through the mud by mismanagement,” he said. “I can clean that place up and give the public the service that they deserve.”
He promises to restore dignity to the position, along with re-establishing a branch in Algiers and implementing tighter control over the court’s finances.
Jupiter points to the breadth of his law experience: He says he has practiced law in all of the city’s courts and has not had a good experience in Traffic Court.
He calls the court a “money grab,” with excessive fees for traffic offenses, scant transparency on where the money goes, and a cattle-call-like environment where defendants have little opportunity to defend themselves. He pledges to create an automated system, where people can pay fines and communicate with the court via phone, text and email.
“I’m going to be a fair and compassionate judge,” he said. “I’m going to allow people to be heard. I’m going to demand that my staff understand each other’s jobs. We are a public court. We should be professional, respectful, courteous, and able to answer people’s questions when they come to the courtroom.”
Perque says he is running because the city’s court system has finally “hit rock-bottom.” Traffic Court, he says, is the most elementary level of the judiciary, touching more citizens than any other, and yet it’s the most broken. “We have a basic failure on all levels, and people are tired of it,” he says. “I want to make it to where people aren’t embarrassed of the judiciary, and people trust the judges again. Enough is enough. It’s time for someone to address it head-on.”
As a lawyer, he says, he’s had terrible experiences in Traffic Court, where judges don’t take the bench, people have no idea what’s going on, and confusion runs rampant.
He pledges to streamline court operations, run a transparent and efficient courtroom and treat all defendants equally, whether they can afford a lawyer or not.
Rai is hinging his campaign on reforming one of the most widely disliked aspects of the city’s traffic laws: red-light camera tickets. He says New Orleanians have been robbed of their due process rights so the city can collect millions of dollars in fines. He calls it “taxation without representation.”
He also says he has a plan to reinstitute Traffic Court sessions at the Algiers courtroom that would cost taxpayers nothing, using only personnel and resources already in place. He also promises to donate 10 percent of his salary to fund internships at the court.
He says he is the most qualified candidate because he has practiced law in Traffic Court, defending New Orleans residents, more than any other candidate.
Sheppard points to her background as a host of a public-access television talk show about traffic as the reason voters should pick her. Running for judge is not a political aspiration for her, she says. She actually loves to talk about traffic. She says she has devoted her life to promoting traffic safety though the talk show, called “Traffic Time,” and created a program that offered amnesty to those with outstanding traffic warrants.
Sheppard says she will work full-time, reopen the Algiers courthouse, promote traffic safety programs in the schools and listen to the people who appear before her. “I will give people their day in court and bring respect and dignity to all,” she promises.
Smith had a kidney transplant seven years ago that not only saved his life, but motivated him to forgo making money in private law practice in favor of public service, he says.
“It really moved me to a place where I realize that this is what I’m supposed to do, this is what I’m called for,” he said. “I know I can make positive change. I love this city, and this is the community’s court. This is the people’s court.”
Smith believes citizens lack a firm understanding of traffic laws, and promises to create educational programs in the community. He also plans to increase scrutiny over the city’s traffic camera program, tighten the court’s financial controls and work with taxi drivers to reduce drunk driving.
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