House panel hears testimony on cutting court

Traffic Court: House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ron Marsico (left) and Rep. Curtis Thomas con­fer dur­ing a March 22 pub­lic hear­ing on elim­in­at­ing Traffic Court. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHO­TOS

Judge Gary S. Glazer, who was ap­poin­ted to Traffic Court to en­act re­forms, said a court em­ploy­ee re­cently gave him a can­did yet cold-eyed view of how long it would take for tick­et fix­ing to re­sume if ju­di­cial over­sight were re­moved.

“ ‘I would say about 15 minutes,’ ” Glazer said the em­ploy­ee told him.

The Com­mon Pleas Court judge test­i­fied last week at a hear­ing of the Pennsylvania House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee. The state Sen­ate voted un­an­im­ously in Feb­ru­ary to elim­in­ate the scan­dal-plagued Traffic Court from the Pennsylvania Con­sti­tu­tion and trans­fer its re­spons­ib­il­it­ies to Phil­adelphia Mu­ni­cip­al Court.

Glazer has been over­see­ing Phil­adelphia Traffic Court since Decem­ber 2011 and has im­ple­men­ted a num­ber of eth­ic­al re­forms. The Pennsylvania Su­preme Court put him in that po­s­i­tion fol­low­ing FBI raids of the cham­bers, homes, of­fices and busi­nesses of Traffic Court judges and em­ploy­ees. 

Also in that time, a con­sult­ant com­mis­sioned by the Su­preme Court pre­pared a re­port that showed fam­ily and friends of judges and em­ploy­ees had a re­mark­ably high rate of ac­quit­tals on mov­ing vi­ol­a­tions.

In Janu­ary, the U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice an­nounced a grand jury in­dict­ment of 12 people, in­clud­ing nine cur­rent or former judges. Three of those judges have already pleaded guilty.

Just six of the 25 mem­bers of the House com­mit­tee at­ten­ded the March 22 hear­ing at the Cen­ter City of­fices of the Phil­adelphia Bar As­so­ci­ation. 

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

However, the oth­er bill, the move to trans­fer traffic vi­ol­a­tion ad­ju­dic­a­tion to Mu­ni­cip­al Court, could hap­pen much faster, as soon as 60 days after pas­sage and the gov­ernor’s sig­na­ture.

Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Ron Marsico, the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee chair­man from Dauph­in County, in­dic­ated that a com­mit­tee vote on both bills could come in early May.

While the House is de­bat­ing wheth­er to ab­ol­ish Traffic Court, 41 Phil­adelphi­ans are run­ning for three open­ings in the May 21 primary.

Traffic Court has his­tor­ic­ally con­sisted of sev­en judges. The only sit­ting elec­ted judge is Christine So­lomon, of Castor Gar­dens. Cases are also be­ing heard by out-of-county seni­or ma­gis­teri­al dis­trict judges, whom Glazer calls “ter­rif­ic.”

Be­sides Glazer, oth­ers who test­i­fied were Kath­leen Wilkin­son, chan­cel­lor of the Phil­adelphia Bar As­so­ci­ation; Ed Mc­Cann, first as­sist­ant dis­trict at­tor­ney in Phil­adelphia; Lynn Marks and Su­z­anne Al­meida, of Pennsylvani­ans for Mod­ern Courts; and state Reps. Mark Co­hen, Curtis Thomas and Ron Wa­ters.

In ad­di­tion, writ­ten testi­mony was sub­mit­ted by the Com­mit­tee of Sev­enty and Inja Coates, a can­did­ate for Traffic Court.

State Rep. Mike McGee­han was among the on­look­ers.

Glazer said the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the 115 Traffic Court em­ploy­ees are “very fine” work­ers who un­fairly take verbal ab­use from ir­ate cit­izens. The court col­lec­ted $24.1 mil­lion in fines in 2012.

The judge told the com­mit­tee that he was as­ton­ished to learn that a ward lead­er called his of­fice twice last spring — even after the much-pub­li­cized FBI raids — to say that a friend with a tick­et would be ap­pear­ing in court. He can only ima­gine what oth­er chi­canery went on pri­or to his ar­rival.

“I shud­der to think what I missed,” he said.

Glazer said he doesn’t think that Traffic Court judges need to have a law de­gree, but they must have hon­esty, in­de­pend­ence and in­teg­rity.

If the le­gis­la­tion leads to the ap­point­ment of hear­ing ex­am­iners to re­place judges, Glazer said they’d re­ceive prop­er train­ing and su­per­vi­sion, and be fired if they turned out to be cor­rupt. He has already spoken to Mu­ni­cip­al Court Pres­id­ent Judge Mar­sha Nei­field about hav­ing a su­per­vising judge on site at Traffic Court, at 8th and Spring Garden streets.

Glazer calls the le­gis­la­tion “com­mon-sense change.”

“This is a re­form that is needed des­per­ately,” he said.

Wilkin­son, the bar as­so­ci­ation chan­cel­lor, test­i­fied that she be­lieves Traffic Court judges should be law­yers. However, Reps. Joe Hack­ett, a Delaware County Re­pub­lic­an, and Madeleine Dean, a Mont­gomery County Demo­crat, ar­gued that they prefer to have non-law­yers handle mov­ing vi­ol­a­tions.

Mc­Cann, the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice rep­res­ent­at­ive, test­i­fied that the ac­tions of the Traffic Court judges were an “em­bar­rass­ment” to the city. He be­lieves Mu­ni­cip­al Court over­sight will be be­ne­fi­cial, but that the court must be giv­en ad­di­tion­al re­sources.

Marks, a pub­lic in­terest law­yer and ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Pennsylvani­ans for Mod­ern Courts, thanked Glazer and Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Domin­ic Pi­leggi for lead­ing the way on Traffic Court re­form. She said some cit­izens must have felt like “suck­ers” for pay­ing their tick­ets while the polit­ic­ally wired were giv­en “spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion.” She called for a pub­lic edu­ca­tion cam­paign about the value of courts and the prop­er role of judges.

Rep. Co­hen fa­vors Traffic Court judges be­ing law­yers, along with con­tinu­ing to elect the judges, but to have them un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Mu­ni­cip­al Court. So­lomon and the three win­ners of this year’s elec­tions should re­main as judges, he said, adding that fu­ture elec­tions should take place in sev­en dis­tricts of the city so the can­did­ates are bet­ter known.

Rep. Thomas op­poses the bills. He has his own le­gis­la­tion that would pre­serve the court, but with ad­di­tion­al stand­ards, con­tin­ued ad­min­is­trat­ive over­sight and con­tinu­ing edu­ca­tion.

Rep. Wa­ters said the judges’ al­leged con­duct was “vile, dis­gust­ing and em­bar­rass­ing,” but he does not want to ab­ol­ish the court. He also fa­vors non-law­yers con­tinu­ing to serve as judges.

“The court should be fixed, not des­troyed,” he said. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath wa­ter.”

The Com­mit­tee of Sev­enty fa­vors pas­sage of both bills, and quickly. The group wants to re­move the three Traffic court seats from the Nov. 5 bal­lot to save cit­izens from pay­ing each of the win­ners an an­nu­al salary of more than $91,000.

Sev­enty pres­id­ent and CEO Zachary Stal­berg said in writ­ten com­ments that there is a “despic­able cul­ture” in Traffic Court. 

“It is wrong-headed to elect judges to a court that is on the fast track to dis­ap­pear,” he said. ••

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