Northeast Times

Senate votes to abolish Traffic Court

Less than one month after 12 people were in­dicted in an al­leged tick­et-fix­ing scheme, the Pa. Sen­ate has voted to elim­in­ate Phil­adelphia’s Traffic Court.

Phil­adelphia’s Traffic Court looks like it will soon be re­leg­ated to the ash­bin of his­tory.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Sen­ate voted un­an­im­ously to ab­ol­ish the court.

The ac­tion came after 12 people — in­clud­ing nine cur­rent or former judges — were in­dicted on Jan. 31 in an al­leged tick­et-fix­ing scheme.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Domin­ic Pi­leggi, a Delaware County Re­pub­lic­an, in­tro­duced one bill that would elim­in­ate the court from the Pennsylvania Con­sti­tu­tion and an­oth­er that would trans­fer its re­spons­ib­il­it­ies to Phil­adelphia Mu­ni­cip­al Court.

Both meas­ures passed by votes of 50-0.

Pi­leggi de­scribed Traffic Court, loc­ated at 8th and Spring Garden streets, as hav­ing a “multi-gen­er­a­tion­al tra­di­tion of dys­func­tion,” adding that no one can ra­tion­ally de­fend its con­tin­ued ex­ist­ence.

“After the most re­cent round of in­dict­ments, the situ­ation in Phil­adelphia Traffic Court is so bad that only one judge out of sev­en is still serving on the court,” he said in a state­ment. “There is no good reas­on for tax­pay­ers to con­tin­ue foot­ing the bill for a court that is un­ne­ces­sary and has be­come an em­bar­rass­ment to the state’s ju­di­cial sys­tem.”

The bills move to the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives for con­sid­er­a­tion. Steve Miskin, spokes­man for Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mike Turzai, an Al­legheny County Re­pub­lic­an, said the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee will hold at least one hear­ing, prob­ably in Phil­adelphia.

If the bills pass the com­mit­tee, they will be brought to the full House.

“There is wide sup­port,” Miskin said.

To change the state Con­sti­tu­tion, a bill must be ap­proved in two con­sec­ut­ive le­gis­lat­ive ses­sions, be signed by the gov­ernor and pass a statewide voter ref­er­en­dum. The soon­est this could hap­pen would be 2015.

The oth­er bill, to trans­fer traffic vi­ol­a­tion ad­ju­dic­a­tion to Mu­ni­cip­al Court, could hap­pen much faster, as soon as 60 days after pas­sage.

The Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee es­tim­ates that the elim­in­a­tion of the court could save up to $650,000 per year. Phil­adelphia is the only county in the state with a Traffic Court.

On Tues­day, can­did­ates for 2013 elec­tions began cir­cu­lat­ing pe­ti­tions for the May 21 primary.

Among the open seats are Traffic Court judge­ships.

Phil­adelphia voters elect sev­en Traffic Court judges. Four spots were va­cant be­fore the charges were an­nounced.

The Pennsylvania Su­preme Court sus­pen­ded Judges Mike Lowry and Mi­chael Sul­li­van after they were in­dicted, leav­ing Christine So­lomon, of Castor Gar­dens, as the only sit­ting judge. She is joined by newly as­signed seni­or ma­gis­teri­al dis­trict judges from vari­ous counties ap­poin­ted to hear cases.

Lowry, of May­fair, and Sul­li­van are among nine people charged in the 78-count grand jury in­dict­ment.

The oth­ers are Mark A. Bruno, a Chester County ma­gis­teri­al dis­trict court judge who oc­ca­sion­ally hears Traffic Court cases; former Judges Robert Mul­grew, Wil­lie Sing­let­ary and Thomas­ine Tynes; former dir­ect­or of re­cords Billy Hird; and busi­ness­men Robert Moy and Henry P. “Ed­die” Al­fano.

Charged by crim­in­al in­form­a­tion are former state Rep. and re­tired Ad­min­is­trat­ive Judge For­tu­nato N. “Fred” Perri Sr., of the North­east; Delaware County Seni­or Dis­trict Judge Ken­neth Miller; and Bucks County Seni­or Ma­gis­teri­al Dis­trict Judge H. War­ren Ho­ge­land.

Last week, Miller and Ho­ge­land pleaded guilty to giv­ing breaks on traffic cita­tions. U.S. Dis­trict Court Judge Robert F. Kelly will sen­tence them on May 24. The sen­ten­cing guidelines range from zero to six months in jail.

The U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice has said that Hird and the judges “par­ti­cip­ated in a wide­spread cul­ture of giv­ing breaks on traffic cita­tions to friends, fam­ily, the polit­ic­ally con­nec­ted and busi­ness as­so­ci­ates.”

The of­fice said that Phil­adelphia ward lead­ers, loc­al politi­cians and as­so­ci­ates of the Demo­crat­ic City Com­mit­tee reg­u­larly con­tac­ted the de­fend­ants seek­ing pref­er­en­tial treat­ment on tick­ets.

The tick­ets al­legedly were fixed from Ju­ly 2008 to Septem­ber 2011 by dis­miss­ing them, find­ing the traffic vi­ol­at­or not guilty or find­ing the vi­ol­at­or guilty of less­er charges.

The charges fol­lowed an FBI raid of judges’ homes, cham­bers and Traffic Court of­fices in Septem­ber 2011.

The state Su­preme Court later ap­poin­ted Phil­adelphia Com­mon Pleas Court Judge Gary Glazer to serve as ad­min­is­trat­ive judge of Traffic Court and im­ple­ment re­forms.

Glazer is happy that the state House will be hold­ing a hear­ing on the is­sue and is pleased that the ap­par­ent lack of fair­ness at Traffic Court is be­ing widely de­bated.

“I’m glad this has re­mained on the pub­lic dock­et and is get­ting the at­ten­tion it de­serves,” he said. “I’m glad ac­tion is be­ing taken.”

The charges came two months after the re­lease of a scath­ing re­port on court op­er­a­tions. A con­sult­ant, hired by the state Su­preme Court, de­term­ined that judges found 85 per­cent of court em­ploy­ees and their fam­ily mem­bers not guilty from 2009 to 2011. Just 26 per­cent of the over­all pub­lic was ac­quit­ted dur­ing that time.

The con­sult­ant’s re­port lis­ted three re­form op­tions: re­quir­ing Traffic Court judges to be law­yers; re­pla­cing judges with non-elec­ted ad­min­is­trat­ive hear­ing ex­am­iners; and elim­in­at­ing the court and trans­fer­ring its jur­is­dic­tion to Phil­adelphia Mu­ni­cip­al Court.

Glazer’s re­forms have centered on train­ing and hir­ing, and he wel­comes fur­ther re­com­mend­a­tions.

“It’s a ser­i­ous prob­lem be­ing taken ser­i­ously, and it’s about time,” he said. “The city de­serves much bet­ter. We don’t need a fourth-rate sys­tem to deal with traffic vi­ol­a­tions.” ••

Re­port­er Tom War­ing can be reached at 215-354-3034 or twar­ing@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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