The state Senate passed two bills Wednesday that would eliminate the Philadelphia Traffic Court. The move comes just one day after two former judges of the court entered guilty pleas to ticket-fixing and less than two weeks after seven other judges also were charged by federal prosecutors with ticket-fixing.
The bills’ main sponsor, state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said in comments submitted to the record that only Philadelphia has a separate court for traffic courts of the 67 counties in the state and that any reason for a separate court is long over.
“These bills are necessary because Philadelphia Traffic Court has proven — year after year and decade after decade — to be an embarrassment to the state’s judicial system,” Pileggi said. “Traffic Court has a multigenerational tradition of dysfunction.”
Philadelphia-based Senators Larry Farnese and Michael J. Stack, both Democrats, spoke from the floor in favor of the legislation.
Stack said the scandal demands “incredible amounts of reform. I’m heartened we’re moving forward with this.”
One bill, which would not require a constitutional amendment, would establish a traffic division within the Philadelphia Municipal Court. Traffic Court judges, including any elected by voters this year, and the two judges who are still sitting and who have not been charged criminally, would be phased out under this legislation.
Another bill would eliminate references to Traffic Court throughout the Pennsylvania Constitution in five different sections; that bill will require passage in two separate legislative sessions and then approval by voters to amend the constitution.
The bill now moves to the House of Representatives.
State Representative Ronald Marsico, R-Dauphin, and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he hopes to have a hearing on the Traffic Court legislation sometime in March.
Stephen Miskin, spokesman for Representative Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, the House majority leader, said in an email he expects action on the bill prior to the budget, which is supposed to be passed by July 1.
The legislation also would allow the Municipal Court president judge to appoint hearing officers to preside over disposition of traffic infractions.
The bill also would allow any judges elected this year to serve in the traffic division under Municipal Court.
Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts said in an email that she commended the Senate for taking action so soon after the federal charges were issued.
“But structural change is not enough,” Marks wrote. “In addition, policymakers, community leaders and everyday Philadelphians must work together to change the culture of favoritism and backroom dealing that has plagued Philadelphia Traffic Court almost since its inception.”
Marks also said that both Traffic Court judges and hearing officers should be lawyers as New York City requires because it “lends importance to the process” and allows “for an additional layer of consequences” in the event of misconduct.
But Marks said she did not expect that the masters would be lawyers.
H. Warren Hogeland and Kenneth Miller, both retired magisterial district judges who had been specially appointed to serve on the Traffic Court bench, each entered guilty pleas in federal court Tuesday.
Hogeland pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and one count of mail fraud.
Miller pled guilty to one count of mail fraud.
Court documents show that Miller, but not Hogeland, explicitly has agreed to cooperate with federal investigators.
Hogeland, who was appointed as a senior judge to sit in Traffic Court after his retirement as an elected magisterial district judge in Bucks County in 2006, admitted that he received and then acted on requests to amend or dismiss cases “without them even being called in open court” at the request of the staffs of Judge Michael J. Sullivan, former Judge Willie F. Singletary and former Judge Thomasine Tynes, according to court papers.
Hogeland also admitted making a number of requests for consideration from other judges, according to court papers.
Hogeland also admitted adjudicating the citation of Miller’s son as not guilty despite the fact that the son did not appear in court, according to court papers.
Miller, who was a senior magisterial district judge in Delaware County from 1970 until January 2006 and then sat as a senior judge in Traffic Court for one year until leaving in early 2008, admitted being involved in fixing a ticket after he was a judge for the son of a clerk in his court system.
Also charged by federal prosecutors are suspended Judge Sullivan, who has been a judge since 2006 and was appointed administrative judge by the Supreme Court in April 2011 before being replaced in that role at the end of 2011; suspended Judge Michael Lowry, who has been a judge since 2008; suspended Judge Robert Mulgrew, who took the bench in 2008 and is already facing charges for an alleged scheme to defraud the state Department of Community and Economic Development; Singletary, who took the bench in 2008 and was judicially disciplined twice for showing photographs of his genitals on his camera phone to a contractor working at Traffic Court and suggesting to a motorcycle club that he would fix their tickets; retired Judge Tynes, who took the bench in 1989 and stepped down last year; suspended Judge Mark A. Bruno, a magisterial district judge from Chester County who also was appointed to sit in the Traffic Court; and Fortunato Perri Sr., who took the bench in 1997 and became a senior judge in 2007, and was the administrative judge appointed by the Supreme Court from 2000 to 2002.
Also charged was William Hird, the court’s former director of records, and two local businessmen, Henry P. Alfano and Robert Moy. Those last two defendants allegedly sought successfully to have tickets fixed.
Lowry, Mulgrew and Tynes are charged with committing perjury before the federal grand jury, and Singletary and Hird are charged with lying to the FBI when asked about ticket-fixing.