The state House of Representatives approved a bill Tuesday that would eliminate constitutional authority for the Philadelphia Traffic Court if the legislation passes again in 2014 and then is approved by Pennsylvania voters in 2015.
The bill passed 117-81.
A companion bill, which would establish a traffic division within the Philadelphia Municipal Court, is slated to be taken up for third and final consideration today. That bill could not be considered Tuesday because it was amended Monday and House rules require 24 hours lapse before amended legislation can be voted upon for the next round of consideration by legislators.
The bill was amended to require the president judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court to report to the General Assembly on the funding for a new traffic division that would be established under the bills, along with its caseload and results reached.
State Senator Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, the majority leader of the Senate, sponsored the legislation in that chamber after several current and former Traffic Court judges were charged by federal prosecutors with ticket-fixing. Three judges have pled guilty. Six have entered pleas of not guilty.
Six representatives spoke Tuesday against the constitutional bill. Some questioned why a judicial corruption scandal in Philadelphia was engendering legislative action when scandals in other judicial districts have not done so.
For one, Representative Michael P. McGeehan, D-Philadelphia, said, “Philadelphia continuously is singled out as an example for corruption, as an example of ethical lapses,” but action is not taken for other scandals like the “kids-for-cash” affair in Luzerne County.
Representative Mark B. Cohen, D-Philadelphia, said the bill is taking a step backward from allowing voters to directly choose their government. If eliminating the election of officials was a solution for good government, then Philadelphia would be a utopia because many more government positions are unelected in the city in comparison to other local Pennsylvania governments, he argued.
Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts said in an email that while “it’s true that the bills target Philadelphia specifically … Philadelphia is the only county in Pennsylvania that still has a separate traffic court, so it really isn’t relevant to talk about changing other counties. Also, while removing democratically elected positions should never be a knee-jerk reaction to scandal, the use of hearing officers would allow for greater accountability and oversight of the traffic citation adjudication process.”
When Representative W. Curtis Thomas, D-Philadelphia, referred to one of the candidates who was successful in the Democratic primary for Traffic Court, Representative Ronald Marsico, R-Dauphin, replied that the judicial nominee was not elected, only nominated by the Democratic Party.
If the House approves that bill on third consideration today, it will need to return for the state Senate’s approval of the amendment in order to advance to Governor Tom Corbett’s desk.
The outstanding 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 have not been charged criminally, would be phased out under this legislation.
The implementing legislation was previously amended in the House Judiciary Committee to establish two more Municipal Court judgeships to complement hearing officers who would serve at the pleasure of the Municipal Court president judge.
The constitutional 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.