The future of the Philadelphia Traffic Court appears uncertain in the wake of a judicial
“ticket-fixing” scandal that has tainted the bench.
But what seems to be clear is an overall call for change at the court, which many consider a bastion of patronage and an unnecessary vestige of yesteryear.
A handful of current and former Traffic Court judges were indicted by the federal government late last week on charges that the jurists routinely dismissed tickets for family members, friends and the politically connected.
The judges are facing federal fraud and conspiracy charges.
At least one top Pennsylvania judge recently weighed in on the scandal.
Supreme Court Justice J. Michaell Eakin released a statement through the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts in which he said the indictments appear to correspond with an in-house review of the Philadelphia Traffic Court that was spearheaded by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille.
“Today’s indictments by U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger define more clearly reports that have circulated in the media of a federal investigation into alleged corruption in traffic court,” Eakin said in his statement. “The justice system will ultimately prevail as these prosecutions are further pursued by the U.S. Attorney and the defendants are afforded their opportunity to respond.”
In the meantime, Eakin said, the Supreme Court continues to have “full confidence” in the leadership of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Gary Glazer, a former federal prosecutor, who was assigned by the high court to take over administrative duties at Traffic Court while the federal case plays out.
“Importantly, Philadelphia Traffic Court remains open and newly-assigned senior magisterial district judges from various counties have been appointed to hear cases,” Eakin continued. “The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts has advised Judge Glazer that additional judicial support is available if and when needed.”
Other reactions have been pouring in in the wake of the Traffic Court scandal.
The advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts released a statement in which it said commonwealth residents should be “outraged” in the wake of the indictments, and that scandals such as these undermine the public’s faith in the state’s judiciary.
The group said that while Traffic Court is designated a minor court, the vast majority of contact that the general public has with the court system is through “people’s courts” such as these.
As such, it is “crucial that the business of these courts be conducted in a fair, transparent and impartial manner,” PMC said in its statement.
“Judges and court staff are not only responsible for hearing arguments, deciding cases, and sanctioning offenders,” the statement reads. “They also serve as the public face of one of our three branches of government and must uphold the integrity of the judicial system.”
PMC pointed to the current corruption case playing out against suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin in western Pennsylvania as another example of the problems with the commonwealth’s judiciary.
Orie Melvin is on trial on charges that she used her then-Superior Court staff to work on her campaign for a seat on the Supreme Court, to which she was eventually elected.
“Judges and their staff should be held to a higher standard of behavior, and criminally defrauding the citizens of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania is inexcusable and unacceptable,” PMC stated.
At least two people have suggested the elimination of Philadelphia Traffic Court entirely.
William Chadwick, the lawyer and consultant who was retained by Chief Justice Castille to look at the minor judicial body, recommended in his report that Traffic Court either be outright abolished or changed so that only those with a law license can be elected to the bench.
Philadelphia Traffic Court judges and magisterial district judges in the other Pennsylvania counties need not be lawyers and don’t have to have any type of a legal background.
Common Pleas Court judges and appellate judges, however, must be licensed attorneys before deciding to run for judgeship.
If Chadwick’s suggestion to abolish Traffic Court actually gains traction, however, it would require amending the commonwealth’s constitution.
Basically, both chambers of the legislature would have to vote on the measure in two consecutive terms, and then a public referendum would be required, not necessarily an easy feat.
The idea, however, has already taken hold with at least one lawmaker.
In mid-January, even before the federal indictments against the Traffic Court judges were unsealed, Republican State Sen. Dominic Pileggi, the majority leader, said he was unveiling legislation that would abolish Philadelphia’s Traffic Court.
At the time of his announcement, Pileggi stated, “There is no objective evidence that the continued existence of the Philadelphia Traffic Court would serve the public interest.”
Pileggi wants to see the duties of Traffic Court rolled into Philadelphia’s Municipal Court.
Philadelphia’s Traffic Court, Municipal Court and the Court of Common Pleas comprise the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, which is Philadelphia County’s court system.
Pileggi announced that he would be rolling out a two-bill package: one would amend the state constitution to allow for the elimination of the Philadelphia Traffic Court while the second would transfer the responsibilities of that body to Philadelphia’s Municipal Court.
The Chadwick Associates report noted that early last decade, a similar undertaking occurred when the jurisdiction of the Pittsburgh Magistrates Court was transferred to the Pittsburgh Municipal Court.
As for Pileggi, his office released a statement on Jan. 31, the day the Traffic Court indictments were announced, that said the news further proved the need to abolish Traffic Court.
“Traffic Court is an institution with a multi-generational tradition of dysfunction,” Pileggi said in his statement. “Since I announced my plan to abolish it, not a single member of the General Assembly has publicly defended the status quo. I’m pleased by that, because the status quo is indefensible.”
Pileggi said the sweeping nature of the indictments demonstrates that Traffic Court is “not worth saving,” and he believes the indictments would accelerate the process of putting his legislation up for a vote.
Philadelphia is the only county in Pennsylvania with a separate traffic court.
In related news, the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board on Jan. 31 announced that it has filed petitions for interim suspension without pay in the Court of Judicial Discipline requesting the immediate suspension of Judges Michael J. Sullivan, Michael Lowry, Fortunato Perri, Sr., Kenneth Miller, H. Warren Hogeland, all sitting Philadelphia Traffic Court judges, as well as Magisterial District Judge Mark A. Bruno of Chester County, pending final disposition of their federal criminal charges.