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Pa. Justices Weigh Future of Philadelphia's Traffic CourtWhen a new Traffic Court opened in Philadelphia in 1957, it was heralded as a place where ticket-fixing would be impossible.
2012-12-11 12:00:00 AM
When a new Traffic Court opened in Philadelphia in 1957, it was heralded as a place where ticket-fixing would be impossible.
The New York Times reported that four magistrates presiding over opening ceremonies for the new court "are determined to do away with the time-honored custom of letting politically favored traffic violators get away with nominal fines or no fines at all."
The court was called the "no-fix" traffic court, and after Traffic Court was reorganized in 1957, "the court also has succeeded, as far as can be determined, in erasing from the courtroom the once familiar sight of the committeeman with a handful of tickets," according to two anonymous authors writing in a 1961 article for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review assessing its impact.
The magistrates have been replaced with judges, albeit judges who do not have to have law degrees. And members of the Democratic or Republican City Committees may not be sitting in the courtroom holding tickets to be fixed. But the custom of the politically connected allegedly fixing their tickets did not die with the structural changes in 1957, according to a report conducted by consultancy Chadwick Associates and released late last month.
The report described a two-tiered system in which the politically connected could get their traffic tickets fixed but the average person could not.
Among other recommendations, the report suggested that Traffic Court judges be licensed members of the bar, or that non-elected administrative officers should hear the majority of motor vehicle violations as is done with parking tickets, or that the Traffic Court could be eliminated entirely and be transferred to the Philadelphia Municipal Court.
Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, the liaison justice to the First Judicial District, said two of the top priorities of the Supreme Court are looking at the conduct of the Traffic Court judges who were named in the report and still sitting, as well as what to do regarding the institution itself.
"We have to look at the conduct of the judges that the report demonstrated" and determine what the high court is going to do with the sitting judges, Castille said.
The Supreme Court is focusing on Traffic Court itself, not so much individuals who "took advantage of the situation over there" in order to allegedly accomplish ticket-fixing, Castille said. However, he said, the high court is focusing on how to eliminate the ability for people to curry favor regarding tickets in the future.
Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts said judges who participated in ticket-fixing and who are still sitting on the court should be sanctioned, and they should not be hearing cases.
The Supreme Court should not wait to take action on those judges until a federal investigation into Traffic Court is concluded or wait until the Judicial Conduct Board takes whatever action it might take against those judges, Marks said.
Castille said he was not discussing the report's reference to his fellow justice, Seamus P. McCaffery.
According to Chadwick Associates' report, two Traffic Court administrators said they were in a meeting with William "Billy" Hird, a former director of courtroom operations who also was alleged to have fixed tickets, when Hird said he had received a cellphone text message from McCaffery asking Hird to meet with him.
One of the administrators said he later learned that McCaffery's wife, Lise Rapaport, had been found not guilty of a traffic violation that day, according to the report. The other court administrator, according to the report, told Chadwick Associates that Hird reported that he had escorted Rapaport into the building, "seen to it that she was 'okay,' and then 'went outside and saw Seamus in the car.'"
The magisterial district judge presiding over the case denied that he found McCaffery's wife not guilty because of political influence, and Hird did not give an interview.
For his part, according to the report, McCaffery said that he called Hird, who he knew from political campaigns, because he wanted to have Rapaport's case assigned to an "out-of-county judge because it would be a conflict for a Philadelphia Traffic Court judge to hear Rapaport's case."
Castille declined comment on whether there is friction in the court right now because of the report and its reference to McCaffery, but he said the court can take up other issues with Traffic Court.
McCaffery did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Everything on the table
In terms of the future of the institution, everything is on the table, Castille said, from getting rid of it entirely to other less drastic reforms.
The difficulty is Traffic Court exists as part of the state constitution, Castille said. But there is some precedent with making structural change to a court without constitutional amendment, Castille said, referring to when the Pittsburgh Magistrates Court went out of existence nearly eight years ago. Pittsburgh magistrates were parallel to a countywide system of magisterial district justices.
"There are so many options under consideration. They have to be evaluated on whether they are appropriate and ... if they can be put into place," said Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Gary S. Glazer, who was appointed administrative judge of Traffic Court just over a year ago in wake of the federal investigation into alleged ticket-fixing. "There's a whole universe outside of the courthouse that is going to want to have a say in that."
One option to be weighed is if Traffic Court employees should be civil servants instead of political appointees, Castille said.
Marks said the advantage of replacing Traffic Court with an administrative agency would be that employees would be civil servants and be subject to dismissal if they do not comply with the rules.
In terms of reform for the judges, both Glazer and Marks said they favor having a tougher exam that Traffic Court judges would have to pass before they could be seated as judges.
"Anything that can be done that will ensure that the judges have appropriate legal and ethical grounding is something that we should support, advance and implement," Glazer said.
While Chadwick Associates suggested that Traffic Court judges be lawyers, having someone's law license at stake is "not the be-all and end-all for the purpose of ethical misconduct. ... We have seen judges who are lawyers who also have been accused of judicial misconduct. That will help but in itself won't deal with the whole culture of ticket-fixing," Marks said.
Marks said she does not favor a merger of Traffic Court into Municipal Court.
'It's a Process'
Many of the ideas for changing Traffic Court have been around for decades even as seemingly not much has changed and the court has faced more than one scandal. For example, in 1978, Judge Louis Vignola was convicted of taking more than $30,000 and five television sets in bribes by writ servers in return for channeling court work their way, according to an Associated Press report from that year.
Glazer said changing the court is going to take a lot of time.
"It's a process," Glazer said. "It's a journey. It's going to take time and we're going to try things and some of them are going to be successful and some of them are going to be unsuccessful."
One reform on its own will not be successful, Marks said.
"After all, the biggest problem is the culture of fixing. The culture of entitlement needs to end," Marks said.
The easiest way to end that culture, Marks said, is for people to stop asking for special treatment.