The "no-fix" court is about to be fixed up after Governor Tom Corbett signed enabling legislation Wednesday to merge the Philadelphia Traffic Court into Philadelphia Municipal Court.
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Gary S. Glazer, who was appointed the administrative judge of Traffic Court, also said that he has been advised by Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin, liaison justice to the First Judicial District, that he is to stay with Traffic Court during the transition. The plan is to eventually transition the Traffic Court portfolio entirely to Municipal Court President Judge Marsha Neifield, Glazer said.
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.
The proposed legislative solution to the ticket-fixing is a model in which judges will no longer be elected by voters in low-wattage elections that tend to turn on candidates who had the Democratic political endorsement. Instead, there will be two new law-trained Municipal Court judges to adjudicate any Traffic Court cases involving jail sentencing and there will be hearing officers appointed by the Municipal Court president judge whose jobs could be on the line if they engage in improper behavior.
"We have a huge amount of work to do, not the least of which we have to use every effort we have to instill public confidence in this system," Glazer said. "We have to devise appropriate and fair hiring procedures for the hearing officers. We have to reconfigure our IT programs because there will be different cases adjudicated by hearing officers and by the Municipal Court judges. We have to consider even reconfiguring the Traffic Court building in order to accommodate a very drastic change in procedure."
There will be contingencies put in place so that hearing officers cannot be contacted about cases, Glazer said.
The three Traffic Court positions that were on the primary ballot this spring will not be filled now. The one sitting Traffic Court judge who has not been charged criminally would be phased out after her elected term in office expires.
The two new Municipal Court judges will be appointed by Corbett this year and elected in later cycles, Glazer said.
The current employees and the current location will stay in place, Glazer said.
When the court was created in 1957, the court was called the "no-fix" 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 assessing the court's impact in a 1961 article for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. But the custom of the politically connected allegedly fixing their tickets did not die with the structural changes in 1957, according to federal prosecutors, as well as a report conducted by consultancy Chadwick Associates.
The federal indictment of Traffic Court judges, a court administrator and two businessmen, as well as the internal report, described a two-tiered system in which the politically connected could get their traffic tickets fixed, but the average person could not.
Having legally-trained judges will be important because of questions about jurisdiction, the motor vehicle code, and appeals to the court of common pleas, Glazer said.
While there have been 24 ethics classes for employees, Glazer said he still wants to provide customer-service training to employees. Many Traffic Court litigants are very cynical and angry because of the reports of corruption, and he wants to get employees "attuned in how to deal with difficult people and how to respond in an appropriate way and how to respond in a courteous way," he said.
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts' Lynn Marks said in an email that restructuring the adjudication of traffic cases also must be paired with the training for hearing officers, including on ethics.
Marks and Committee of Seventy's Zack Stalberg both said that they were pleased that Glazer will continue to be involved in the court.
"His dedication to cleaning up Traffic Court and leadership in crafting reforms has made him an indispensable part of this transition process," Marks said.
Stalberg said he is more confident in the structural reforms if, through Glazer, there is "some sense of continuity that this will be done right. It would have been easy for the functions of Traffic Court to just become an orphan in Municipal Court."
The change also would not have happened without the Republicans in the General Assembly, Stalberg said.
"Ticket-fixing in Philadelphia, unfortunately, has become sort of a permanent part of the culture and the only way you're going to change that is by changing the administration of tickets and traffic offenses," Stalberg said.
Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille thanked Corbett and Pileggi in a statement for addressing Traffic Court in legislation.
"The problems with Traffic Court have been well-documented, starting with the investigative report prepared for the First Judicial District at my direction," the chief justice's statement said. "The willingness of our sister branches to quickly join with the judiciary as we work to correct the problems is appreciated."
A second bill that would eliminate the constitutional authority for the Philadelphia Traffic Court passed this session. The legislation must pass again in 2014 and then be approved by Pennsylvania voters in 2015.