Newly elected Philadelphia Traffic Court Judge fails final exam; can't begin work

By Jon Campisi | Jan 6, 2012

What should have been a happy start to the New Year for newly elected Philadelphia Traffic Court Judge Christine Solomon no doubt ended up in disappointment after Solomon learned she had failed a judicial examination given to all incoming freshman minor court jurists.

Solomon, 59, who won election to the minor court bench in November, was unable to be sworn in earlier this week because she failed the two-hour exam, which consists of multiple choice and essay questions.

Traffic Court judges in Pennsylvania, a state where jurists of all levels are elected on partisan slates, are not required to have a legal background.

The same goes for magisterial district judges.

The Traffic Court judges, however, who hear summary offense cases stemming from traffic infractions, are required to take a one-month course and pass the final exam, a written test that measures their knowledge of the state’s Motor Vehicle Code.

It’s not the end of the line for Solomon, whose starting salary will be just over $89,000, since she is eligible to take the written test over again at the end of the month.

For now, however, she won’t be receiving a salary and she won’t be able to hear cases, according to Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

“It is not an infrequent occurrence,” Heinz, in a phone interview Thursday, said of a minor judiciary judge failing the judicial exam. “There’s retesting available.”

Heinz said under the state constitution, members of the minor judiciary – magisterial district judges in the 66 counties excluding Philadelphia, and Philadelphia Traffic Court judges – are not required to have a legal educational background or be attorneys before running for elected office.

They do, however, have to undergo the month-long training course and take and pass the final exam.

“They must do that before they can begin serving,” Heinz said.

Until then, the minor judges can’t be sworn in, they can’t carry out their judicial duties and they cannot be paid.

Heinz said the state doesn’t require the taking of the course and subsequent written exam before running for judgeship.

Minor judicial candidates have the option to do those things beforehand, however, and some judicial candidates will use that as leverage against their judicial opponents, he said.

“Then, as part of their campaign, [they] will make it known to the electorate that they have passed and [are] certified to serve, and their opponent is not,” Heinz said.

Heinz said he isn’t familiar with the precise history behind Pennsylvania not requiring minor court judges to have legal backgrounds.

“It’s been the way things have evolved across the state,” he said. “This is something that’s been there for some time, that jurists, at that level … there never has been a requirement for them to be attorneys.”

Pennsylvania isn’t the only state with such liberal requirements for minor court positions, Heinz said; even his native New York has certain judgeships that don’t require legal backgrounds.

“There are other states where this is commonplace,” Heinz said.

As for Philadelphia Traffic Court Judge Solomon, she will have the opportunity to retest at the end of the month.

Susan Davis, executive director of the Minor Judiciary Education Board, which is charged with providing legal education to Pennsylvania’s minor judiciary, said by phone Tuesday that elected judicial candidates have nine months from the date they’re elected to office in which to retest before a vacancy would be declared.

As for Solomon, Davis said her office doesn’t give out specifics with regard to individual judges. The only information offered to the public, she said, would be to confirm whether or not a judge is “certified.”

In this case, she said, “Christine Solomon is not certified.”

The Solomon situation comes on the heels of other controversies that have besieged Philadelphia’s Traffic Court.

Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary was recently relieved of his duties by the court’s acting administrative judge for allegedly showing a photo of his genitals to a female court staffer.

And on Thursday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, through an order, officially suspended Singletary without pay.

Before that, federal authorities announced an investigation into a supposed ticket-fixing scandal at the court.

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