RIP Traffic Court, pit of political patronage
Philadelphia Traffic Court died Tuesday after a decades-long illness. The cause of death: corruption. It was 48. Shepherded to its grave by a statewide ballot measure, the court was preceded in death by other antiquated city patronage mills like the Clerk of Quarter Sessions (2010) and the Board of Revision of Taxes (also 2010, although after only four months in the grave, that one rose again).
Philadelphia Traffic Court died Tuesday after a decades-long illness. The cause of death: corruption.
It was 48.
Shepherded to its grave by a statewide ballot measure, the court was preceded in death by other antiquated city patronage mills like the Clerk of Quarter Sessions (2010) and the Board of Revision of Taxes (also 2010, although after only four months in the grave, that one rose again).
It is survived by a string of its former judges who have either spent time in or are still confined to prison for crimes tied to fixing tickets in exchange for porn, concert tickets, or the simple opportunity to extend a favor to a friend.
And while it will be remembered by some politically connected scofflaws as a forgiving warden of state traffic laws and a reliable dismisser of pesky traffic fines, its passing was welcomed by the judicial reformers, federal authorities, and legislators whose combined efforts put Traffic Court in its grave.
"It was really the last step to make sure that corruption would not return to the adjudication of moving violations," said Common Pleas Court Judge Gary S. Glazer, who oversees its replacement, the Traffic Division of Municipal Court. "It was a stake through the heart of corruption."
Many state voters, who saw a ballot measure Tuesday inviting them to seal the court's death, were surprised to learn that Traffic Court had not died already. More than 1.4 million voted to kill it; about 975,000 others didn't agree.
A 2013 vote in the Assembly transferred its jurisdiction to Municipal Court and forced Traffic Court into early retirement. It was replaced by a younger - and, reformers hope, more ethical - system of mediating moving violations.
But because Traffic Court's birth had been ensconced in the state's constitution, it took a statewide referendum to ensure that it could not one day recover political support and return.
"Good riddance," said David Thornburgh, CEO of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy. "How people couldn't have been offended by the constant series of ticket-fixing scandals is beyond me. The story of Traffic Court is like a comedy, a travesty, and a farce."
Traffic Court, which resided for years at Eighth and Spring Garden Streets, was born in 1968, created by legislators seeking to clear the glut of traffic cases that had clogged the old Magistrate Courts and combat the corruption that had beset them.
But even in its youth, the newly constituted court exhibited its own affinity for avarice.
In 1978, a federal probe landed Judge Louis Vignola behind bars for taking $32,000 in bribes from process servers to funnel work in their direction. The court saw its first wholesale housecleaning in 1984 after a ticket-fixing scandal ended in convictions for 15 people.
Its last came in 2013, with an FBI probe and independent investigation by state judicial authorities that led to indictments against six Traffic Court judges and three suburban magistrates.
At times the number of judges and court employees accused of doling out special treatment from the bench seemed outnumbered only by efforts launched to reform the system.
Arriving at Traffic Court in 2011 with a mandate to clean up, Glazer recalled being uncertain whether the political will existed to support his good intentions.
He now oversees five hearing officers with law degrees who were hired through an interview process based on their qualifications.
Previously, he said, "there had been no training, there had been no ethical leadership at the top, there had been no sensitivity to the fact that what they were doing was really wrong."
"You had people who knew no other way of operating," he added. "And there was a constant cycle of prosecutions and half-baked reform measures previously that really went nowhere."
Glazer recalled being warned by a relative of a prior reformer that the system's problems were intractable.
That man, he said, upon presenting a series of recommendations to fix the court, was told: "But if we implement these reforms, we won't be able to fix tickets anymore."
Still, even as the court was in its death throes, there were those who remembered some of its qualities fondly. More than a third of Philadelphians casting ballots Tuesday voted against the court's abolition.
U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.), in an interview Tuesday with KYW Newsradio, said he valued the "common touch" of the court's system of electing judges who had no legal training.
"People that get elected by the people have to get the feel of the people," he said.
By Thursday, though, Brady had processed any grief and moved on. "It's over," he said. "I'm not worried about it now. There's no reason to even talk about it."
And yet, if for nothing else, Traffic Court will be remembered for the only-in-Philadelphia characters it produced over decades - judges who sold their professional integrity for pittances.
Men like former President Judge Fortunato N. Perri Sr., once known as the Traffic Court's "hanging judge," whose predilection for The Jerry Springer Show and practice of fixing tickets in exchange for bribes of shrimp, crab cakes, and pornographic videos was exposed in the 2013 case.
Or Willie Singletary, who rose from an impoverished West Philadelphia family with 21 siblings - six of whom were also named Willie - to become one of Traffic Court's youngest judges.
His career quickly flamed out in a series of rapid-fire scandals - from his caught-on-video appeal to a group of bikers for campaign donations in exchange for a "hook-up" should they appear in his court, to his decision to show a female employee cellphone photos of his genitals.
As he sentenced Singletary to prison last year for lying to the FBI, U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel cited a segment the comedian John Oliver aired on his HBO show Last Week Tonight highlighting Singletary's antics, and suggested it be shown to law students as a cautionary tale.
"How someone so unqualified for this office can be elected says more to me about the diseased political system that puts this person up for office than it does about Mr. Singletary himself," Stengel said.
Maida Milone, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, saw Stengel's sentiment echoed in Tuesday's vote.
"I hope when people were casting their votes, they were saying, we want to see an end to scandal," she said. "We want to register to our legislators the importance of blind justice."
Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.