NEW ORLEANS -- Anyone who has received a traffic ticket in New Orleans knows the drill.
If you contest the violation, you go to court, wait until your name is called, visit an assistant city attorney, agree on a citation, pay the fine.
The traffic court judges are rarely seen.
That routine – corroborated by watchdog agency reports showing that traffic court has too many judges for too little work – has targeted the court for downsizing in a bill pending before the state legislature.
But the lack of work on the bench goes beyond the court’s four elected judges, according to an analysis by WWL-TV. Ad hoc replacements who fill in when the judges are absent also do little or no work, yet get paid a full judge’s salary for the days they are appointed, records show.
Replacements who do nothing?
The ad hocs are paid more than $300 for each day they sit, according to Chief Traffic Court Judge Robert Jones. Records also show that the majority of the ad hocs make campaign contributions to the judges they replace.
“You mean we have replacements for people who do nothing? We’re paying two judges to do nothing instead of one?” asked New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux. “I think it's a fleecing of the taxpayers. It’s a serious problem. It's just a way to siphon more money out of the same taxpayers.”
Traffic court records show how often – or infrequently – the four elected judges take the bench to conduct trials.
In 2013, there were 85 trials between the four sections of traffic court. But the breakdown among the judges was far from equal.
Judge Mark Shea conducted 59 of the trials, about 70 percent of the total. Chief Judge Robert Jones conducted 14 trials. Judge Ronald Sholes conducted 10 before he resigned at the end of July. Judge Herbert Cade presided over two.
“Those numbers just go to show there's no work to be done there, except in Judge Shea's courtroom,” Quatrevaux said. “If they were in the army, they would be AWOL.”
'Almost nothing to do'
Quatrevaux audited traffic court in 2011 and arrived at similar findings. His report, which has often been used in the debate about right-sizing the court, recommends that the workload be handled by a single judge instead of four.
A 2013 report by the Bureau of Governmental Research reached similar conclusions, using a quantitative formula to show that judicial workload in traffic court boils down to enough work for 1.2 judges.
“Contested tickets are subject to a plea bargain 99.5 percent of the time,” Quatrevaux said. “So the judges really have almost nothing to do. It's an administrative operation. The clerks do all the work.”
The numbers for the first three months of 2014 show the same pattern. Out of 42 trials, Shea conducted 38, Cade and Jones two each. Newly elected Judge Steven Jupiter had zero.
The bill currently before lawmakers would consolidate traffic and municipal courts, which also has four judges. The bill would effectively eliminate two judgeships out of the eight, according to the sponsor, Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.
"What we can do by having six judges who share the responsibility is this: deal with that caseload in a more efficient way, reduce the number overall, and find some savings as it comes to operations," Leger said.
The fact that traffic court employs ad hocs to fill in for judges widely believed to be underworked is “an embarrassment,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Based on public records of ad hoc appointments supplied by the Louisiana Supreme Court, New Orleans traffic court judges not only use fill-ins on days they are absent, they hire them more often than any court in the metro area except for New Orleans Municipal Court.
Traffic court used ad hocs replacements on 80 days last year. That compares to a low of zero ad hoc appointments in St. Bernard Parish, to a high of 178 fill-ins for Municipal Court. New Orleans Criminal Court, with 12 trial judges, had the third most ad hocs with 69, the records show.
“They are adding insult to injury and adding to the cost and inefficiencies by appointing, in many instances, their campaign contributors," Goyeneche said. “This court, I think, is an embarrassment to the judiciary as a whole.”
The ad hoc daily pay rate of more than $300 is base on the judges’ salaries, Jones said.
The position of traffic court judge has long been considered a plum assignment because the job is considered part-time and the judges are allowed to maintain a private law practice. The regular traffic court judges are paid $111,207 a year, while position of chief judge – which is considered a full-time post – comes with a salary of $137,743.
Jones defended the court’s use of ad hocs.
He said that traffic court has a high number of replacements because the court can’t shut down and reschedule cases the way some other courts do. While judges do take time off for vacations, sick days or continuing legal education, he said they rarely use the 37 absences they are allowed each year by the Supreme Court.
The traffic court judges issued a joint statement to defend their practices.
“NOTC adjudicates more cases than any other court in the state,” the traffic court judges wrote. “Unlike other courts, NOTC does not close merely because a judge is absent. The use of ad hocs is key to ensuring there is no disruption of the adjudication of cases.”
Traffic court judges choose own replacements
As the records indicate, nearly every other court in the area employs ad hoc judges.
But there’s another big difference in how ad hocs are handled by traffic court compared to the other courts. While other courts get ad hocs assigned randomly from a pool of retired judges picked by the State Supreme Court, traffic court usually gets lawyers who have never served on the bench.
Not only that, but the traffic court judges pick their own replacements as long as they are pre-approved by the high court and placed in a pool of eligible fill-ins, a system acknowledged by the court.
“Currently, 12 individuals have completed that process and have been approved, creating a pool from which ad hoc judges are selected,” the court wrote in its statement.
Jones said the court uses experienced lawyers in good standing who serve according to the law. But records show that most of the ad hocs are campaign contributors to the same judges who pick them as replacements.
The contributions are relatively modest, but nearly every lawyer who received an ad hoc appointment donated to a judge, records show.
For example, attorney Anthony Skidmore was appointed 27 times by Cade in 2013 and 15 times by Jones. In the most recent elections, Skidmore donated $200 and $500 to those judges, respectively.
Another frequent appointee was attorney Cliff Cardone, who sat 12 times last year between three judges, Cade, Shea and Sholes.
Campaign finance records show Cardone contributed to each judge: $500 to Cade, $1,000 to Shea, and $500 to Sholes.
Attorney Keith Doley, who served for Cade three times, Jones three times and Sholes 11 times, donated $700, $300 and $100 to those judges, respectively.
Doley declined comment, while Skidmore and Cardone did not return calls.
Retired judges also serve as ad hocs in traffic court, but far less frequently, the records show. Furthermore, campaign finance reports show that none of those judges made contributions to the judges they filled in for.
Perhaps the most revealing disclosure comes from the replacement judges themselves. Two of the ad hocs, speaking on condition of anonymity, candidly admitted that they are asked to do little or no work when they are at traffic court.
Quatrevaux said he is disappointed, but not surprised.
"It's kind of a full circle,” Quatrevaux said. “You make a campaign contribution. You get paid back with an ad hoc position to do nothing and collect a check. Again, that means we're paying two judges to do nothing instead of one."