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LOCAL CITY HALL

Former L.A. Mayor James Hahn lands in traffic court — as judge

Former L.A. Mayor James K. Hahn has an unexpected new career hearing traffic cases

Peter Horton, the television actor who played Gary on "Thirtysomething," stood at the defendant's table in a Santa Monica courtroom and told the judge why he'd skipped his trial for allegedly failing to stop for a school bus boarding children.

"I was directing a film in Morocco," Horton said.

Unimpressed, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James K. Hahn told Horton he was "not even allowed to leave the state" while awaiting trial.

"I can't not support my family," Horton retorted.

"You set the trial date," Hahn snapped, raising his voice. "You weren't here. I find you guilty of violating your promise to appear." Hahn fined Horton $238. "Have a seat," Hahn told him.

The scene captured Hahn's show-no-mercy, by-the-book manner in his role as traffic judge.

It's an unusual late-career turn for the 64-year-old former mayor of Los Angeles and standard-bearer of a South L.A. political dynasty. Appointed to the bench in 2008 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hahn has been hearing traffic cases full time for almost a year.

As drivers try to maneuver out of citations, Hahn, draped in a black judicial robe, furrows his brow, peers over his glasses, and listens skeptically to excuses and explanations — some good, many bad. Nine years after Antonio Villaraigosa unseated him as mayor, Hahn also goes unrecognized by many of the alleged scofflaws.

"He's that Jim Hahn? Holy crap," Horton said outside the courtroom. "Maybe he's frustrated by not being mayor anymore."

Hahn rarely cuts drivers a break on his assembly line of mini-trials. Through a translator, Maria Guadalupe Alanis, 81, admitted she'd run a red light, but told Hahn she could barely live off Social Security and couldn't handle the $490 fine. "There are some days I don't eat," she said.

"That's why we'll allow you to do community service," Hahn responded. After verifying she could at least answer a phone, he ordered her to perform community service and told her: "Have a seat."

Those punished often complain. Alanis found Hahn "muy displicente" (very disdainful); Horton called him "belligerent." "I just felt like he was up there being a bully for no reason," Horton said.

In an interview in his wood-paneled chambers, Hahn said he was not being hostile. "I'm just the umpire ... I'm not here to make everybody happy," he said.

Hahn's $186,000 annual pay falls short of the $194,000 salary he earned as mayor. And traffic duty denies him the media spotlight that fellow judges get in high-profile criminal and civil trials — not necessarily a bad thing for a former politician who was never entirely at ease in the glare of public life.

Other former big-city mayors have taken more lucrative career paths. Villaraigosa became an advisor to Banc of California, the nutritional products company Herbalife and the Edelman public relations firm, and a part-time professor of public policy at USC.

Richard M. Daley, Hahn's counterpart in Chicago, went to work at investment banking and law firms and joined the board of Coca-Cola Co. Rudolph W. Giuliani, New York City's mayor when Hahn took office in 2001, has made millions of dollars in speaking, consulting and legal fees.

"I certainly wouldn't have turned it down if it had come my way," Hahn said. "But I enjoy public service."

A longtime San Pedro resident, Hahn now lives near the beach in Santa Monica with his third wife, former mayoral aide Michelle Fleenor, 48. He looks back on his 2005 defeat as an unexpected blessing.

"I like my lifestyle now," he said, recalling the grueling hours of politics. "I'm usually out of here by 5."

In the 80-minute interview, Hahn turned wistful at times. Politics would have been "a whole lot easier," he said, if he'd been as gregarious as his father, former County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, whose photo hangs above his desk. "If you're a little shy or reserved like me, it doesn't work," he said.

Hahn said he was "not personally very happy" as mayor, with his second marriage breaking apart and too little time to devote to his two children. "I don't think I did justice probably to either job — being mayor or being a dad, because I was trying to do too much with both of those," he said. "I don't think I did either one as well as I could have done."

Hahn's first court assignment was foster care cases — "gratifying and heartbreaking every day," he said. Later he handled evictions, small claims and restraining orders, including one that he granted to singer Sheryl Crow against an alleged stalker.

In traffic court, Hahn's lectures can carry a preacher's cadence, his voice rising, falling and pausing for emphasis. "It's totally up to the judge whether or not anyone gets to go to traffic school," he told a group one day last week.

He can be impatient. He scolded 28-year-old Hannah Miller of West Hollywood when she asked to step out and put money in a parking meter. "You should have parked in the parking lot," he told her. "Go ahead, ma'am."

When she returned to make her case, she said she'd run a red light to avoid an accident. But Hahn said she was the one who'd risked a collision.

"You had plenty of time to stop on the yellow light, did you not?" he asked.

"I was very frightened," she said.

"This one was a near traffic accident, ma'am," he concluded before finding her guilty.

On a bench outside, Miller, a nanny and actress, wiped away tears as she fretted over the fine. "He seemed very inflexible," she said.

M. Imran Adhami of Irvine offered Hahn a mistaken-identity defense for his red-light camera ticket: He said his brother was behind the wheel.

"Do you have a photograph of you and your brother together?" Hahn asked.

Adhami, 48, found one on his mobile phone and showed it to Hahn, who compared the image with police photo evidence. "He's actually shorter than me," Adhami said, after Hahn inquired about his and his brother's height. "But he likes to put the seat up."

"I think it looks more like you than your brother," Hahn said, drawing chuckles from the courtroom, before setting his trial date.

Not everyone loses. Tyler Parker, 22, told Hahn he'd accidentally put hydraulic fluid in his brake fluid reservoir, causing a brake failure that led him to sail through a red light on Sepulveda Boulevard in Culver City.

"That was the first place that you noticed that your brakes didn't work?" Hahn inquired doubtfully, before relenting and letting him off.

Parker left the courthouse beaming. "He was actually very fair," Parker said.

Horton's experience was more typical. A few hours after the celebrity's departure, Hahn recounted the case — with a dash of poetic license — to a new batch of defendants.

"He goes, 'Well, I'm a very famous director, and I was directing a movie in another country, and I had to miss the trial,'" Hahn told the group in a sarcastic tone.

"I said, 'Well that's nice. But you're going to pay a fine for not coming to your court date.' He was very upset about that."

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

Twitter: @finneganLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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