Beleaguered Phila. Traffic Court a step closer toward elimination

By Jon Campisi | Jun 6, 2013

Two bills that would help pave the way toward abolishing the scandal-plagued

Philadelphia Traffic Court passed the full Pennsylvania House of Representatives this week on a majority vote.

The proposals, Senate Bills 333 and 334, which were sponsored by State Sen. Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-9, would amend the state constitution to allow for the minor court’s elimination and transfer the court’s duties to Philadelphia Municipal Court respectively.

Pileggi, a suburban Philadelphia legislator representing neighboring Delaware County, hailed this week’s votes as a step toward preserving the integrity of the state’s judiciary.

“Philadelphia Traffic Court is widely known as an institution where people are treated differently based on who they are or who they knew,” the senator said in a statement. “That kind of unfairness cannot be tolerated, particularly not in our courtrooms. I applaud the House for taking action on both of these bills.”

The Philadelphia Traffic Court will remain operational – at least for now; the General Assembly must approve the bill allowing for the court’s dissolution in two consecutive legislative sessions, and the public must vote on the court’s abolishment in a referendum, because of the fact that the constitution would have to be amended.

Philadelphia remains the only county out of Pennsylvania’s 67 that has its own court dedicated solely to hearing traffic cases.

The minor judiciary has been the subject of past controversy, including the resignation of a young Traffic Court judge who was accused of showing cellphone photos of his genitals to a court staffer, but the court made statewide headlines earlier this year when the U.S. Attorney’s office in Philadelphia announced indictments against nine sitting and current members of the bench in what has become dubbed a “ticket-fixing” scandal, in which judges were accused of dismissing or downgrading motor vehicle infractions for family members, friends and the politically-connected.

Pileggi, the leader sponsor of the legislative package to kill Philadelphia Traffic Court, cited both a previous internal report commissioned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the federal indictments themselves as reasons why the court needed to be eliminated.

The court, Pileggi pointed out, has been accused of operating on “two tracks of justice – one for the connected and another for the unwitting general public.”

If Senate Bill 333 is eventually adopted by the lawmakers and the voters, the commonwealth’s constitution would be officially amended.

The companion bill, S.B. 334, would create a new Traffic Division at the Philadelphia Municipal Court, whose judges would handle the issue of contested traffic citations.

According to Pileggi’s office, the Senate is expected to vote on S.B. 334, as amended by the House, sometime next week.

Gov. Tom Corbett has indicated his support for the measure.

If the governor does sign S.B. 334 into law, the current judicial vacancies – only one judge is remaining at Philadelphia Traffic Court following the indictments – would not be filled and Philadelphia Municipal Court would immediately begin the process of creating its own Traffic Division, the senator’s office stated.

S.B. 333 was approved this week by the House without any amendments.

While the issue of eliminating Philadelphia Traffic Court has drawn a majority of support among lawmakers and others, there are still those who see it as a rash decision in relation to a situation involving a handful of bad apples.

Lynn Marks, who heads up the advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said while the removal of elected positions should  never be a “knee-jerk reaction to a scandal,” her group nonetheless supports getting rid of the scandal tainted bench.

“While we are sympathetic to some of the concerns that were raised during the debate, we believe that these reforms – although not perfect – make sense,” Marks wrote in an email to the Pennsylvania Record. “We believe that restructuring Philadelphia traffic court will help restore public confidence by increasing accountability for those individuals hearing traffic cases. This restructuring must be accompanied by ongoing substantive and ethical training for hearing officers.”

As it stands now, Philadelphia Traffic Court judges, who are elected, are not required to be lawyers and need no legal training whatsoever.

A brief course is given to judges upon election.

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