The Republican state Senate majority leader announced Friday that he will introduce legislation that, if enacted, would abolish the Philadelphia Traffic Court and transfer its caseload to Philadelphia Municipal Court. The legislative push comes in the wake of the First Judicial District’s internal report last Thanksgiving, which painted the court as having “two tracks of justice — one for the connected and another for the unwitting general public.”
The internal report suggested several potential structural reform options, including one that mirrors the proposal of state Senator Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, to eliminate the Traffic Court entirely and transfer its jurisdiction to the Philadelphia Municipal Court. The report also recommended that Traffic Court judges be lawyers or that the position of Traffic Court judges be eliminated in favor of civil-servant administrative hearing officers who would be subject to more oversight than independently elected judges.
Pileggi’s action may be the first official governmental action in response to the report. The state Supreme Court has not yet taken action on sitting judges named in the report as allegedly being involved in ticket-fixing.
In an interview, Pileggi said he would be open to amending the legislation to allow for hearing officers to preside over cases if statutory measures to that effect would be necessary.
Asked whether the legislation has been backed by the state Supreme Court, Pileggi said in an interview he thinks Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, for whom Justice J. Michael Eakin took over last week as liaison justice to the FJD, and Eakin himself, “have the same intentions of ending the historical pattern of dysfunction” that the senator does.
“I advised the court of my intentions and I am looking forward to and hoping they will be supportive, and that we can do this in a cooperative manner,” Pileggi said.
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Gary Glazer, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court to oversee Traffic Court in the wake of a federal investigation into alleged ticket-fixing, said that he has been advised that Pileggi is amenable to input from the FJD on the legislation.
“We are extremely gratified that the senator has taken this up … we obviously share his concerns that the present system is beyond broken,” Glazer said.
The FJD will have a committee to review the legislation, including Glazer, court administrators, Municipal Court President Judge Marsha H. Neifield and William G. Chadwick, of the consultancy that authored the FJD’s Traffic Court report.
It is important to have structural reform to supplement internal reforms Glazer said he has enacted, like giving over a dozen ethics courses to court employees and not allowing political connections to be a factor in recent hiring decisions, Glazer said.
“I have come to the conclusion that drastic change is necessary,” Glazer said. “We are actively and will be actively considering the best way to effectuate change.”
But Glazer said that, while drastic change is necessary in the format in which cases are heard to ensure that cases are heard openly, appropriately, fairly and honestly, that Traffic Court cannot just be “annihilated” in terms of the “actual infrastructure of the record-keeping. … There’s a whole structure that’s in existence. There’s a massive computer system. [The court] generates up to $30 million a year in revenue. You just can’t discard the whole process.”
A source told The Legal last Thursday that after replacing Castille as liaison justice, Eakin told Glazer that in continuing to enact a reform agenda, the Traffic Court administrative judge has his confidence.
In a legislative memorandum seeking co-sponsors, Pileggi said he plans to introduce two bills. One would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to eliminate the court, including eliminating references to the Philadelphia Traffic Court; the other would amend statutory law to transfer the Traffic Court’s duties to Philadelphia Municipal Court.
The second bill will be drafted, Pileggi’s memorandum said, in such a way that its provisions could take effect, regardless of whether the constitutional amendment is approved.
According to Pileggi, in the interview, the legislation was still receiving finishing touches on Friday.
After the FBI raided the Traffic Court in 2011, the First Judicial District hired consultancy Chadwick Associates to do its own investigation. No indictments stemming from the FBI’s apparent investigation had come down as of Friday afternoon.
Pileggi said that whatever justification there was for a separate Traffic Court is long expired.
When a new Traffic Court opened in Philadelphia in 1957, it was heralded as a place where ticket-fixing would be impossible.
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.
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 the Chadwick Associates report.
In the FJD’s internal investigation, the consultancy found that both elected Traffic Court judges and senior judges who were assigned to the court “routinely entertained and acted upon extrajudicial, ex parte requests for favorable treatment of traffic violators from sources within the Traffic Court and sources external to its operations.”
Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts said that the situation is so bad at Traffic Court that all recommendations and all suggestions should be on the table. Even though Traffic Court is a minor court, change to the court is important because it is often the only place in which people have contact with the justice system, she said.
“Very few litigants actually go to the Supreme Court … but people really do go themselves to Traffic Court, family court and Municipal Court,” Marks said. “What people think of these courts is how they often end up perceiving the” justice system.
Pileggi’s proposal comes as candidates for Traffic Court are currently in the process of running for three openings.
In the memo, Pileggi notes the court has seven judges, who are not required to be attorneys, each of whom are collecting a yearly salary of $91,052.