In The News › Traffic Court runoff Nov. 16 as debate over New Orleans judgeships rages on

Nov 7, 2013

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

Traffic Court runoff Nov. 16 as debate over New Orleans judgeships rages on

By Richard Rainey | The Times-Picayune

November 07, 2013

Voters will go to the polls Nov. 16 to choose New Orleans Traffic Court’s newest judge even as a broad panel of judges, lawyers, citizen advocates and other legal experts from across Louisiana mull whether that bench seat should exist at all.

Steven Jupiter and Clint Smith, both campaign newcomers, outlasted six opponents Oct. 19 to force a runoff. Jupiter had a slight lead by winning 23 percent of the vote to Smith’s 17 percent, but their rematch will take place on a whole new landscape.

After all, “60 percent of the voters didn’t vote for me or Clint,” Jupiter said.

Alongside a runoff for magistrate judge in Criminal District Court, the Traffic Court special election sharpens focus on a growing concern over what some officials have called Orleans Parish’s bloated judiciary. Mayor Mitch Landrieu this spring failed to convince the Legislature to remove two judgeships from the Juvenile Court’s six-member bench, even as he builds a new courthouse with only four courtrooms. And a government watchdog group, the Bureau of Governmental Research, reported that the Judicial Council’s own formula for determining a judgeship’s efficacy showed New Orleans could do without 25 of its judges.

That same report also suggested that one judge with a healthy staff could handle the caseload presently split among four part-time Traffic Court judges.

The 17-member council, the research arm of the state Supreme Court, is in the final months of a two-year, statewide look at whether judgeships should be added, moved or eliminated. Its results should be released in February, in time for state lawmakers to act on its findings during the 2014 legislative session.

Traffic Court, specifically, has come under fire in recent years for corruption and incidents of theft. Those include guilty pleas from two ex-clerks of former Judge Ron Sholes, whom Jupiter and Smith are vying to succeed. Sholes retired in July after 16 years on the bench; attorney Michael Darnell has served in his stead on a temporary basis.

The bench is a political plum of sorts. An open seat often attracts a broad swath of candidates, likely lured by its part-time status and six-figure salary. Judges, save for the chief judge, can continue to practice law privately while collecting $111,207 a year in state and municipal pay.

Jupiter said this week he plans to stick to his message from the primary: If elected, he will focus on balancing the need to dispense justice with the needs of people who can’t afford to pay the fines. Promoting a community service program comes to mind as an alternative, he said.

“We don’t want to take food off the table, but on the other hand, you have to obey the laws and protect public safety,” he said.

Jupiter attributed his performance in October’s election to his campaign’s success in identifying strongholds of support and focusing on them. He said he campaigned hard in the 4th, 7th and 9th wards and in his own neighborhood, Algiers. The latest campaign finance reports show Jupiter loaned his campaign $30,000 and raised $5,350 since the Oct. 19 election. He has more than $6,400 on hand after spending almost $54,000 in October.

Jupiter said he has also picked up the endorsements of several of his former rivals: including Marie Bookman, Nicole Sheppard and Pat Giraud. Although she dropped out of the race shortly after entering her name in August, former state Rep. Charmaine Marchand has also endorsed him, Jupiter said.

Rather than collect support from his former opponents, Smith said he has gained the backing of several political organizations. Those include the Independent Women’s Organization, Young Democrats of New Orleans, the Regular Democratic Organization and the Forum for Equality, he said.

A former Traffic Court judge pro-tem, Smith is also repeating his campaign message of using the bench to better educate the public about traffic laws and the consequences of breaking them. He also said he wants to help people avoid multiple trips to court to contest tickets.

Smith’s latest campaign finance report wasn’t available with the state Ethics Administration, but he described it as “could be better.” Leading up to the Oct. 19 election, he had about $38,200 on hand. But that was before spending $11,640 fir election day workers.

With little more than a week left in the campaign, both first-time candidates are at full bore, skipping sleep and knocking on doors.

“When you’re going through this process, when people say weekends, that doesn’t mean anything,” Smith said.

Nov 7, 2013

Source: | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

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