Pa. Justices Weigh Future of Philadelphia's Traffic Court

, The Legal Intelligencer


When a new Traffic Court opened in Philadelphia in 1957, it was heralded as a place where ticket-fixing would be impossible.

The New York Times reported that four magistrates presiding over opening ceremonies for the new court "are determined to do away with the time-honored custom of letting politically favored traffic violators get away with nominal fines or no fines at all."

The court was called the "no-fix" traffic 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 writing in a 1961 article for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review assessing its impact.

The magistrates have been replaced with judges, albeit judges who do not have to have law degrees. And members of the Democratic or Republican City Committees may not be sitting in the courtroom holding tickets to be fixed. But the custom of the politically connected allegedly fixing their tickets did not die with the structural changes in 1957, according to a report conducted by consultancy Chadwick Associates and released late last month.

The report described a two-tiered system in which the politically connected could get their traffic tickets fixed but the average person could not.

Among other recommendations, the report suggested that Traffic Court judges be licensed members of the bar, or that non-elected administrative officers should hear the majority of motor vehicle violations as is done with parking tickets, or that the Traffic Court could be eliminated entirely and be transferred to the Philadelphia Municipal Court.

Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, the liaison justice to the First Judicial District, said two of the top priorities of the Supreme Court are looking at the conduct of the Traffic Court judges who were named in the report and still sitting, as well as what to do regarding the institution itself.

"We have to look at the conduct of the judges that the report demonstrated" and determine what the high court is going to do with the sitting judges, Castille said.

The Supreme Court is focusing on Traffic Court itself, not so much individuals who "took advantage of the situation over there" in order to allegedly accomplish ticket-fixing, Castille said. However, he said, the high court is focusing on how to eliminate the ability for people to curry favor regarding tickets in the future.

Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts said judges who participated in ticket-fixing and who are still sitting on the court should be sanctioned, and they should not be hearing cases.

The Supreme Court should not wait to take action on those judges until a federal investigation into Traffic Court is concluded or wait until the Judicial Conduct Board takes whatever action it might take against those judges, Marks said.

Castille said he was not discussing the report's reference to his fellow justice, Seamus P. McCaffery.

According to Chadwick Associates' report, two Traffic Court administrators said they were in a meeting with William "Billy" Hird, a former director of courtroom operations who also was alleged to have fixed tickets, when Hird said he had received a cellphone text message from McCaffery asking Hird to meet with him.

One of the administrators said he later learned that McCaffery's wife, Lise Rapaport, had been found not guilty of a traffic violation that day, according to the report. The other court administrator, according to the report, told Chadwick Associates that Hird reported that he had escorted Rapaport into the building, "seen to it that she was 'okay,' and then 'went outside and saw Seamus in the car.'"

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