Pa. Senate votes to abolish scandal-plagued Phila. Traffic Court; House previously voted similarly

By Jon Campisi | Jun 13, 2013

Philadelphia Traffic Court, tainted by a seemingly endless stream of scandals, appears

Philadelphia Traffic Court, tainted by a seemingly endless stream of scandals, appears

headed for the chopping block after the state Senate Tuesday unanimously voted to abolish the minor bench, the only one of its kind in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi announced that senators this week followed the lead of the state House of Representatives, which also recently voted to kill the court.

The bill to eliminate Traffic Court is now headed to the desk of Gov. Tom Corbett, who has signaled he plans to sign the proposal into law.

“The reasons for abolishing this court are clear to anyone who follows the news,” Pileggi said in a June 11 statement. “Through the last 50 years, the Philadelphia Traffic Court has demonstrated a remarkable ability to be the center of scandal after scandal, some criminal in nature and others the result of basic incompetence. The court has proven to be immune to all reform efforts.”

Philadelphia Traffic Court was created back in the 1960s, the last time the state held a constitutional convention.

In order for it to be scrapped, a companion bill to S.B. 333, which is Pileggi’s measure to abolish the court, must also be passed by the General Assembly in two consecutive legislative sessions coupled with a public referendum, which is needed to amend the state constitution.

Philadelphia Traffic Court has seen its share of scandals in recent times, such as the former jurist who resigned after being accused of showing cellphone photos of his penis to a female court staffer, but perhaps the largest scandal to envelop the court were the federal indictments against nine current and former Traffic Court judges on allegations that they “fixed” vehicle citations for family, friends, the politically connected and business associates.

Prior to the widespread indictments, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court commissioned its own independent investigation of the court, whose judges, all elected, need no legal training or background to serve on the bench.

Pileggi, the Senate majority leader behind the push to abolish Traffic Court, noted that corruption and dysfunction at the judicial body dates back at least 35 years, when the court’s then-president judge was convicted in federal court of taking $32,000 in gifts and bribes while in office.

Additionally, 12 people were convicted in the mid-1980s after prosecutors uncovered a similar massive ticket-fixing scheme that included more than $100,000 in illegal payoffs to Traffic Court employees, according to the senator’s office.

“By the early 1990s, management of Traffic Court was so bad that published media reports described it as ‘a place where no one can be quite sure what’s what and who’s in charge,’” reads a news release from Pileggi’s office.

“Unfortunately, all evidence suggests that the Traffic Court of 2013 has reverted to corruption,” Pileggi said in his statement.

If, and when, Gov. Corbett signs the bill to eliminate Philadelphia Traffic Court, the elections now scheduled to fill the current vacancies on the bench would be cancelled and Philadelphia Municipal Court, the city’s lower-tier court under the Court of Common Pleas, would immediately begin the process of creating its own Traffic Division, where additional judges and hearing officers would preside over motor vehicle citation appeals.

Another bill in Pileggi’s package to eliminate Traffic Court would allow for the creation of the new Traffic Division at Municipal Court.

That bill would add two additional Municipal Court judges who would specifically handle traffic cases, and the measure would also require the filing of an annual report on the actions of the Traffic Division.

“Today, the situation is so bad that one of only seven judges is still serving,” Pileggi told his colleagues on the Senate floor, according to video of his speech posted to his website. “It is past time to finally do away with this institution.”

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