House Gives Final Sign-Off on Killing Traffic Court

, The Legal Intelligencer

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The Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved the final piece of legislation that would eliminate the Philadelphia Traffic Court in the wake of a ticket-fixing scandal within that judicial body.

The measure passed on a 114-81 vote.

The same legislation has already cleared the state Senate but must be approved by the Senate one last time because it was amended twice.

The legislation passed Wednesday would create a traffic division within Municipal Court, would create two new Municipal Court judges to adjudicate any Traffic Court cases involving jail sentencing, and would provide that the two judges who are still sitting and have not been charged criminally would be phased out.

On Tuesday, the House approved a second bill that would eliminate the constitutional authority for the Philadelphia Traffic Court if the legislation passes again in 2014 and then is approved by Pennsylvania voters in 2015.

Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Gary S. Glazer, administrative judge of the Traffic Court, called the bills "landmark legislation" that shows the General Assembly and the judiciary can work together to do the right thing.

Representative Michael P. McGeehan, D-Philadelphia, questioned from the House floor why control over picking the arbiters of traffic citations was being wrested away from voters in favor of hearing officers who would be selected by the Municipal Court president judge.

Glazer said in an interview that, while he favors the election of judges, "the poster child for electing judges was not the Traffic Court."

Representative W. Curtis Thomas, D-Philadelphia, unsuccessfully sought to table the legislation in order for it to be amended to address the future of the estimated 140 court employees and the future of the lease of the Traffic Court's current site.

Glazer said the intention is that the court's physical structure and internal workforce stay the same.

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 assessing the court's impact in a 1961 article for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

The magistrates have been replaced with judges, albeit judges who do not require 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 federal prosecutors, as well as a report conducted by consultancy Chadwick Associates.

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