Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Gary S. Glazer, who took over leadership of the embattled Philadelphia Traffic Court in the wake of FBI investigations into alleged rampant ticket-fixing at the court, told the state House Judiciary Committee on Friday that hiring employee hearing officers instead of elected judges is the only way to eradicate corruption from the court.
Glazer testified before the committee at its hearing at the Philadelphia Bar Association in support of two recently passed state Senate bills that would abolish the Traffic Court.
“We know elected Traffic Court judges are subjected to enormous pressure from political supporters. … This makes it all but impossible to provide the type of supervision necessary in that environment to ensure cases are heard solely on the merits,” Glazer said. “So integrity can only be achieved by employee hearing officers appointed by the president judge of the Municipal Court to hear these matters.”
There were questions from the committee about whether there was a concern of hearing officers being appointed rather than hired civil servants.
“I got my job through politics. I am not anti-politics. I know that politics is part of our lives. It just is,” Glazer said. “But I don’t equate politics with corruption. It can work. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what we have.”
Glazer’s concept seemed to get support from at least a few of the state representatives on the committee who praised similar nonlawyer magisterial district judge roles in counties outside of Philadelphia as “people’s courts.” The measure does not have the backing of the Philadelphia Bar Association, however, whose chancellor testified that requiring Traffic Court judges to be attorneys was the best way to keep the court honest.
The state Senate passed legislation last month, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, to eliminate the Traffic Court. The House Judiciary Committee started its consideration of Senate Bills 333 and 334 on Friday.
Bill 334, 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 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.
Bill 333 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.
Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Kathleen Wilkinson testified before the committee, pushing for the judges who hear traffic cases to be licensed attorneys — something not currently required of Traffic Court judges.
While most citizens will never see the inside of a courtroom for a complicated contract dispute, Wilkinson noted, many will receive moving violations, which can lead to loss of a license, higher premiums and even incarceration.
“With such high stakes, it is troubling that under the current system, Traffic Court judges who are required to interpret and apply the laws of this commonwealth are not required to be lawyers,” Wilkinson said.
When pressed in questioning whether the bar association supported Senate Bills 333 and 334, Wilkinson said the bar supported moving traffic judges into Municipal Courts.
Representative Joe Hackett, R-Delaware, said he disagreed traffic hearing officers should be lawyers, noting he always felt it better for such minor offenses to be heard by peers rather than attorneys. Representative Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery, later followed that the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t require its members to be lawyers.
Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, testified in support of both Senate bills. She said that while hearing officers would “ideally” be lawyers, competent lay hearing officers could also be able to adjudicate traffic tickets. But Marks said litigants must have the ability to appeal decisions to a judge. But that can’t be the end of it, she said.
“The biggest problem in Philadelphia Traffic Court is the culture of favoritism that surrounds the everyday workings of the court coupled with the culture of entitlement that is prevalent among ‘connected’ Philadelphians,” Marks testified.
Glazer also noted the culture of corruption at the Traffic Court, which he said became a “two-track system of justice,” with one track for the politically connected and another for the “unwitting public.”
“The Traffic Court situation exceeds all expectations of cynicism,” Glazer said.
In one example, Glazer noted that after he had been appointed to take over Traffic Court, a ward leader called his chambers when the leader couldn’t get a hold of a traffic judge. The ward leader wanted to get a message to the judge that a friend was going before the judge that day with a ticket. The leader then called back later that afternoon to see if Glazer had passed on the message. Glazer said he instructed his secretary to inform the ward leader the message was passed on to Glazer. The ward leader asked how that was a help, Glazer testified.
“I can’t control the judges,” Glazer said. “That’s why I’m very much in favor of this bill.”
House Judiciary Committee Counsel Mike Kane asked Glazer whether there was any hope of repairing the Traffic Court as it was currently structured.
Glazer said he loves Philadelphia, “but there is a long-standing ethos in this Traffic Court of corruption and I don’t know how you’re going to get rid of that unless you drastically change this system.”
Keeping the current Traffic Court in tact would mean the corruption would come back, Glazer said.
Cost and Contracts
While outside of the scope of either bill, Glazer noted three concerns that could be raised in abolishing Traffic Court: the court’s current lease of the Traffic Court building runs through 2024, its current computer system contract that handles traffic violations and the court’s approximately 115 employees, at least some of whom are in a union.
Glazer said he thinks, even with the abolishment of the court as it currently exists, those three things can remain intact.
There were questions from some of the committee members about those issues, particularly the employees and whether they were part of the corruption. Glazer said some were fired and all of the remaining employees are going through ethics training.
Representative Glen R. Grell, R-Cumberland, then asked, “Are you vouching for basically the workforce there?”
“Yes I am. Yes I am. Absolutely,” Glazer said.
Committee Democratic Chairman Thomas R. Caltagirone, D-Berks, said there has long been a struggle on adequately funding the courts. He said he was looking for a dedicated source of funding. Dean asked how many hearing officers there would be, to which Glazer said probably around the same number of Traffic Court positions. There are currently seven Traffic Court judges, including the sole remaining judge who was not indicted and then other senior judges from other counties filling in.
Because Municipal Court judges would be supervising this work and hearing appeals of traffic cases, Glazer said he also thought there may need to be an increase in Municipal Court judges.
Edward McCann, first deputy district attorney with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, testified that while his office supported the bills, it was concerned about the strain such a shift would put on the already taxed Municipal Court. He said he hoped this wouldn’t become an unfunded mandate. McCann also testified that the Municipal Court would need to be given the appropriate authority to properly administer the court, including the ability to make personnel, management and expenditure decisions.
A trio of Democratic Philadelphia state representatives — Ronald Waters, Mark Cohen and W. Curtis Thomas — testified against passage of the bills. Thomas has instead proposed HB 1025, which he said would create a president judge and six masters who would hear cases. They would not have to be lawyers. These masters would submit proposed findings of fact to Municipal Court judges for final determination.
Waters said there was no reason to do away with Traffic Court and take away the citizens’ chance to elect judges. Cohen said he was against the bills because it created yet another appointed office in Philadelphia — a county where he said fewer and fewer positions are elected.
Committee Republican Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, said the committee would most likely take up the bills in early May.