Two members of the state Supreme Court disagreed on the prudence and usefulness of requiring Philadelphia Traffic Court judges to be attorneys during a hearing on the judiciary’s budget Wednesday.

Justice Max Baer said the requirement would increase the Supreme Court’s leverage in maintaining high standards of judicial conduct. But Justice Thomas G. Saylor said the judicial discipline infrastructure already provides adequate tools for reining in any misconduct on the part of Traffic Court judges.

Legislators’ questions during the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing touched upon a wide variety of topics, including the court’s plan to bring county clerks of courts for criminal cases and prothonotaries for civil cases into the state judicial system, the judiciary’s request for $36.4 million more than the $308.2 million in general funds Governor Tom Corbett has proposed for the 2013-14 fiscal year, and the elimination of magisterial district judgeships.

Two former judges of the court have entered guilty pleas to ticket-fixing in federal court and seven other judges also have been charged by federal prosecutors with ticket-fixing.

The state Senate passed legislation last week to eliminate the Traffic Court.

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. That bill also would allow the Municipal Court president judge to appoint hearing officers to preside over disposition of traffic infractions.

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.

Baer raised the topic after the testifying justices were asked about the potential budget impact of integrating the functions of Traffic Court into Philadelphia Municipal Court.

Baer said that state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi’s bill is very important, but that the judges should be attorneys because “our apparatus of discipline and [ethics] is all directed at lawyers and judges,” and not requiring Traffic Court judges to be attorneys chills the ability of the judiciary to instill good behavior in the lawyers on the threat that they never would be able to practice law as lawyers anymore.

Saylor pointed out that Municipal Court already requires that its judges be lawyers.

But Saylor said he holds a view different from Baer’s on the requirement that Traffic Court judges be lawyers. A judge, whether a lawyer or not, is subject to the Court of Judicial Discipline, Saylor said, and “it’s not going to make a whit of difference if someone who has completed malfeasance” as a Traffic Court judge also is subject to discipline as an attorney.

Later in the hearing, Baer appeared to back off slightly, saying that having Traffic Court judges be attorneys may not be important. Baer said he was driven by solving once and for all “a cyclical, perennial problem of corruption in Philadelphia Traffic Court,” whether with nonlawyer judges or with legally-trained judges.

State Representative Michael H. O’Brien, a Democrat whose district is in Northeast Philadelphia, asked why Traffic Court judges should be attorneys, and Baer said because for 30 years the Traffic Court has been “rife with crime,” it might be a prudent idea to subject the judges both to the judicial discipline system and the attorney discipline system.

In response, O’Brien stated that “it seems to me you take the opportunity from Jane and Joe Average to stand before the bar as equals and plead their case on minor issues. It seems to me, if you take Jane and Joe Average and put them in an elitist environment,” they would not be as well prepared to handle their cases.

State Representative Deberah Kula, D-Fayette, said that, as a nonlawyer who served as a magisterial district judge, she was offended by an impression she received that somehow attorneys are more ethical.

O’Brien also asked why the consultancy Chadwick Associates was hired by the First Judicial District to do an internal investigation into alleged ticket-fixing when the FBI was undertaking its own criminal investigation.

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, who as the then-liaison justice to the FJD authorized the investigation, attended the hearing but did not testify.

Saylor said that it was “incumbent upon the authorities that oversee the First Judicial District, which was overseen by the chief justice, [that they] would want to get out in front of the situation.” The Supreme Court recently appointed Justice J. Michael Eakin as the liaison justice instead of Castille.

Baer said that he did not have a position on whether it is better to get out in front of a criminal investigation internally first, but he pointed out that in Luzerne County it was three years before the FBI completed its investigation into judicial corruption by former Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan.

“Do we proactively investigate independently and take action to get recalcitrant or criminal justices off the bench and do reforms as quickly as we can?” Baer asked, or should the judiciary let law enforcement do it and save money while doing so?

Saylor called Pileggi’s legislation “salutary,” and he noted that there was a minor court in Pittsburgh that was “constitutionally derived” and had its functions absorbed into other courts because it had outlived its usefulness.

Both justices said that they believe the budgetary impact of merging Traffic Court into the Philadelphia Municipal Court would have a de minimis impact.

Clerks As State Employees

The judiciary also proposed that county-level clerks of courts for criminal cases and prothonotaries for civil cases be merged into the state system. The judiciary argues that the idea is revenue-neutral because of the proposal that 10 percent of the county-court grants to subsidize individual judges be used to pay for 75 clerks, prothonotaries and their top judges to become state employees.

“No new tax dollars are envisioned to fulfill the major aspect of this transition,” Saylor and Baer said in their testimony submitted to the committee. “Instead, the judiciary’s proposal envisions shifting part of counties’ annual state-funded court reimbursement grant to this purpose. … The initiative’s intent is to further develop a county-level court management structure led by each president judge, effectively transitioning from a 19th century operating structure.”

State Representative Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, who served as an elected court of clerks, said that being independently elected by his county voters gave him autonomy from the judges of the Court of Common Pleas to provide efficient, effective services to his constituents.

Court Administrator Zygmont Pines said that having independence in those offices is not as important as other factors like some clerks of courts and prothonotaries reporting that they are not provided enough budget resources by their county governments.

Any currently elected clerks would not see a salary reduction and would transition into state employment subject to the authority of that county’s president judge, Pines said.

When Kula raised the issue of reducing the county grants, Castille spoke up from the audience that legislators could increase the line item to the counties.

The change to the clerks’ status could be done statutorily and would not require a constitutional amendment, Pines said.

Budget, Budget, Budget

Saylor said that, as has happened in the past, that the governor has proposed less funding than the judiciary has requested.

“We’re in the position of asking the legislature, starting with your committee, to consider a funding level that would meet the needs of this third branch of government,” Saylor said. “I think the legislature experiences the same thing in terms of the governor’s recommendation.”

The budget request reflects increases to cover enhanced pension contributions, pay increases to keep up with the cost of living and increased insurance costs, Saylor said.

Superior Court President Judge Correale F. Stevens, who served as a member of the House of Representatives, said, “I know the difficult choices you have to make.” But the judiciary, Stevens argued, particularly the Superior Court, which handles 8,000 appeals each year, needs the additional funding requested by the judiciary to be enacted by the General Assembly because otherwise the courts will have to close some days and legislators’ constituents would be ill-served.

“Whether it’s Commonwealth v. Sandusky or Jones v. Smith,” all appeals are handed fairly and timely, Stevens said.

The judiciary has cut $33.9 million by, among other measures, reducing the number of magisterial district judgeships, not filling judicial vacancies at all levels, and requiring court employees as well as judges to contribute to the cost of their health care.

Castille has requested that the freeze on filling interim judicial appointments be continued for the next fiscal year, because not filling vacancies over the last three years has saved taxpayers more than $9.8 million, according to literature distributed to legislators Wednesday.

Regarding the elimination of some magisterial district judges, Saylor said that the 12 counties in which seats were going to be eliminated have already been processed and that the other outstanding counties will not be having districts eliminated.

Amaris Elliott-Engel can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or aelliott-engel@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisTLI.