With a stroke of his pen Wednesday, Gov. Tom Corbett ushered in a new era of reform
for Pennsylvania’s judiciary.
The governor signed a bill into law that puts the kibosh on the scandal-plagued Philadelphia Traffic Court, which has long been viewed as a bastion of corruption to court reformers.
The legislative push to eliminate the minor bench from the commonwealth’s judicial landscape came after the recent federal indictment of nine current or former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges in a widespread ticket-fixing scandal involving allegations that traffic citations were either lessened, or outright dismissed for judges’ family members, friends, or political acquaintances.
While the federal investigation was the catalyst for the move toward abolishing Traffic Court – it remained the only one of its kind in the entire state – in reality, people have been wanting to scrap the minor judiciary for years.
“I thank Governor Corbett for signing this bill and bringing to an end the decades-long and well-documented history of corruption and dysfunction at Traffic Court,” state Sen. Dominic Pileggi, (R-9), said in a statement.
Pileggi, the Senate majority leader who represents Delaware County, one of Philadelphia’s neighbors, had recently sponsored a package of bills designed to abolish Philadelphia Traffic Court.
The bill Corbett signed this week was S.B. 334, which transfers the court’s duties to Philadelphia Municipal Court.
The law sets up a general traffic division at Municipal Court, and adds two more jurists to the bench, as well as additional hearing officers, who will help preside over traffic ticket appeals.
Just last week, the full Senate unanimously approved amendments to S.B. 334, sending the bill to the governor’s office for his signature.
The House had also previously approved of the measure.
While S.B. 334 goes into effect immediately, a companion bill, S.B. 333, still requires passage.
That bill is necessary because Philadelphia Traffic Court needs to be officially eliminated from the Pennsylvania Constitution, an action that requires additional passage in the General Assembly during next legislative session and approval by the general public through a voter referendum.
Corbett’s Wednesday signature means the elections that had been scheduled for this year to fill vacancies on Traffic Court are now cancelled.
There were three vacancies on the court that were up for grabs in November.
In a statement issued last month, Pileggi said that Philadelphia Traffic Court needed to be eliminated because of the numerous scandals to have come out of the bench throughout the years.
The senator said time has shown that “the court has proven to be immune to all reform efforts.”
“Today, the situation is so bad that one of only seven judges is still serving,” Pileggi said at the time. “It is past time to finally do away with this institution.”
Other scandals have marred Traffic Court in the past, such as the case of former Judge Willie Singletary, who resigned his post after being caught up in a controversy involving him showing cellphone images of his penis to a female court worker.
More than three decades ago, the court’s then-president judge was convicted in federal court of taking $32,000 in gifts and bribes while in office.
And in the mid-1980s, federal authorities uncovered a massive ticket-fixing scheme similar to the one of today, but with that one including more than $100,000 in illegal payoffs to Traffic Court employees.
That case ended with the conviction of 12 individuals.
Lynn Marks, executive director of the advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said in a statement that while abolishing Philadelphia Traffic Court won’t completely rid the judiciary of corruption, “we think that, hopefully, by transferring the traffic functions to Municipal Court, and with appointed hearing officers, there will be a positive step on the road to reform.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille, a Philadelphia native, also seemed please with the move to eliminated Traffic Court, saying in a statement that he was thankful to both Pileggi and Corbett for introducing and singing the bill respectively.
"For too many years, two tracks of justice applied at Traffic Court: one for the politically connected and one for the honest citizen," Castille stated. "Such a disgrace that reaches back decades and involved other FBI raids will finally end."
Castille noted that Traffic Court problems have been well documented throughout the years, but were especially highlighted in a report Castille himself commissioned just prior to the federal indictments.
The chief justice stated that the “willingness of our sister branches to quickly join the judiciary as we work to correct the problems is appreciated.
“This is an example of collaboration at its best,” Castille said in his statement. “Traffic adjudications touch more citizens than any other part of the court system, and this step will help to restore public confidence that all cases will be fairly decided.”
As for the most recent federal indictments, six of those jurists are likely headed to trial after pleading not guilty, while three other judges have admitted their role in the scandal.
Philadelphia Traffic Court judges were not required to be attorneys prior to running for judgeship.