Pa. state Senate unanimously approves abolishing Philadelphia Traffic Court

By Jon Campisi | Feb 14, 2013

Apparently, it’s not just a small group of Pennsylvania Senate members who think

abolishing Philadelphia’s Traffic Court is a good idea.

The entire 50-member legislative body on Feb. 13 unanimously approved of two bills that would pave the way toward eliminating the scandal-plagued minor judiciary.

A news release issued by the Pennsylvania Senate Republicans this week stated that the entire Senate has voted to authorize the abolishing of the Philadelphia Traffic Court, which made headlines recently after the federal government unsealed indictments and criminal informations against 12 individuals, nine of whom are current or former members of the minor judiciary, alleging charges of widespread “ticket-fixing.”

Two of the nine jurists pleaded guilty this week to “fixing” traffic citations, which included everything from outright scrapping the tickets to finding alleged violators guilty of lesser offenses.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania contends that Traffic Court judges routinely fixed tickets for relatives, friends and the politically connected.

Earlier this month, state Sen. Dominic Pileggi, a Republican from Delaware County who serves as the Senate’s majority leader, introduced Senate Bills 333 and 334, which would eliminate Philadelphia Traffic Court from the state constitution and transfer the court’s responsibilities to the Philadelphia Municipal Court respectively.

“After the most recent round of indictments, the situation in Philadelphia Traffic Court is so bad that only one judge out of seven is still serving on the court,” Pileggi said in a statement. “There is no good reason for taxpayers to continue footing the bill for a court that is unnecessary and has become an embarrassment to the state’s judicial system.”

Philadelphia is the only one out of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties that has a separate traffic court.

The Senate Appropriations Committee estimates that eliminating Philadelphia’s Traffic Court could save the commonwealth up to $650,000 per year.

In late January, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia announced the fraud, conspiracy and corruption charges against the minor court jurists, with the federal government charging that the defendants participated in a “widespread culture of giving breaks on traffic citations to friends, family, the politically-connected and business associates,” the office previously announced.

Pileggi, in announcing his legislation to abolish Traffic Court, had said that the most recent criminal charges should be the “final straw” for the bench.

“This is a court with a multi-generational tradition of dysfunction,” the senator said in his statement. “No one can rationally defend its continued existence.”

Prior to the indictments, one former Traffic Court judge, Willie Singletary, became caught up in a scandal in which he was alleged to have shown cellphone photos of his genitalia to a female court worker.

And another Traffic Court jurist was recently named in a separate federal indictment that contained allegations of tax fraud.

Pileggi’s first bill would amend the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to allow for the elimination of the court.

The second bill would statutorily transfer all traffic cases coming out of Philadelphia to the county’s Municipal Court.

The matter will now be sent to the state House of Representatives for full consideration.

After that, the issue must be addressed by voters in a public referendum.

The Philadelphia Traffic Court has long been a thorn in the side of court reformers who claim the minor bench is a haven for patronage jobs and the politically connected.

Like magisterial district courts across the commonwealth, Traffic Court judges also don’t need to possess a law license or have any legal background whatsoever to serve on the bench.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court retained a consulting firm, Chadwick & Associates, to study the Philadelphia Traffic Court shortly before the federal indictments were announced.

In that report, attorney William Chadwick suggested the possible elimination of Traffic Court as a way to deal with the problems that have plagued the bench for years.

The advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts released a statement Wednesday in which the group praised the state Senate’s vote to abolish the court.

“The reforms introduced in Senator Pileggi’s bills make good sense,” PMC’s executive director, Lynn Marks, said in a statement. “We still have some questions, particularly how the functions will be transferred, but this is a positive first step in the legislative process.”

Marks, however, went on to say that structural changes are not enough.

“Policymakers, community leaders, and everyday Philadelphians must work together to change the culture of favoritism and backroom dealing that has plagued Philadelphia Traffic Court from its inception,” she said. “The culture of entitlement can end. We can stop asking for and expecting special consideration for ourselves and others. We can demand that our community and political leaders abide by the same rules as the rest of us. We can choose judges based on their qualifications, experience and integrity, not their name, ballot position or fundraising prowess.”

Marks and her group noted that it’s not only Traffic Court that’s the problem. Because all judges in Pennsylvania are elected, the potential for corruption exists at all levels of the judiciary, even up through to the appellate courts.

In January, state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a Democrat from Philadelphia, introduced a merit selection bill that would change the way appellate judges are chosen, essentially eliminating the elected system.

That bill currently sits in committee.

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