By Gary Joseph Wilson | PA Independent
It’s been called the most corrupt court in Pennsylvania. And now it soon could be no more.
After some passionate dissent from Philadelphia-area Democrats, the state House voted 117- 81 on Senate Bill 333, which begins the process of amending the Pennsylvania Constitution so that it no longer requires the court’s existence. A vote on a bill that eliminates the Court is expected later this week.
The drive to amend the state constitution came after a wave of scandals in the Philadelphia Traffic Court.
In January, nine current and former judges of the Philadelphia Traffic Court were indicted for their alleged roles in a ticket-fixing scheme. The judges are accused of unfairly favoring politically connected friends, business associates, and family and dismissing tickets in exchange for personal favors.
Former Traffic Court judges Fortunato Perri Sr., H. Warren Hogeland and Kenneth N. Miller pleaded guilty to conspiracy, mail and wire fraud in connection with the scandal.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, sponsored successful legislation to kill the court, saying there was 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.”
Rep. Ronald Waters, D-Philadelphia, argued against the proposed constitutional amendment, saying the Legislature should “not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Waters said although it was fair to criticize the corrupt Traffic Court judges, attacking the institution of the court will only hurt Philadelphians.
Despite Tuesday’s vote, amending the state constitution is an arduous process that takes a minimum of two years and eventually requires a voter referendum.
In the interim, the state House is scheduled to vote Wednesday on Senate Bill 334, which would shutter the Traffic Court and transfer the court’s responsibilities to a newly established Traffic Division within the Philadelphia Municipal Court.
SB 334 requires Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature to become law. SB 333 does not because it is a constitutional amendment.
The Philadelphia Traffic Court is composed of seven elected judges. There are no real requirements — such as a holding a law degree — to be a judge on the court.
Judges on the Philadelphia Traffic Court are paid $91,764 and receive state benefits.
Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said S.B. 334 will transfer sitting Traffic Court judges to the Traffic Division of Municipal Court, but “the bill does not address the duties of these judges.”
Marks stressed that for reform to be successful, the new Traffic Division will need “mechanisms in place to hold the hearing officers accountable for their behavior,” such as a complaints process and performance review program.
The Pennsylvania Senate Appropriates Committee said the state could save $650,000 in the coming fiscal year from judicial organization. However, the committee also said amending the state constitution would cost between $2 million and $3 million.
Interestingly, Pileggi’s bills do not require the new Traffic Division judges to be lawyers, although it does require they complete a course in traffic law.
Erik Arneson, spokesperson for Pileggi, said this was done to ensure that the traffic court judges are kept “analogous to district judges,” who are also not required to hold law degrees in Pennsylvania
For Rep. Michael McGeehan, D-Philadelphia, this is precisely the problem.
McGeehan criticized the Legislature for singling out Philadelphia and only focusing on “transitory problems in the Philadelphia Traffic Court.” McGeehan cited a lengthy list of other judicial misdeeds and argued that real reform would only come from requiring district judges to be lawyers.
But will Pileggi’s reform at least end ticket-fixing? Not everyone is optimistic.
John Bowman, communications director of the National Motorists Association, said in an email that corruption related to traffic laws was nothing new.
Corruption “tends to thrive when there are enough unreasonable and arbitrary laws on the books that nobody gives a second thought to giving someone a break,” he said.
Contact Gary Joseph Wilson at gary@paindependent.