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. ••