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 firstname.lastname@example.org