By Gaetan J. Alfano, Deborah R. Gross, and Mary F. Platt
On April 26, Pennsylvania voters will have the opportunity to eliminate a court whose time has long since come and gone.
Through the late 1960s, the old Philadelphia Magistrate Courts became clogged with numerous traffic violation cases and were beset by massive corruption. In 1968, as part of an overhaul of the state constitution, Philadelphia Traffic Court was created.
Although intended to deal specifically with traffic violations, Philadelphia Traffic Court became a breeding ground for corruption and political patronage jobs. Over the years, the court was plagued by recurring cycles of investigations, convictions, and halfhearted reform efforts.
The decision-makers were nominally called "judges," positions with no education or experience requirements. Philadelphia watched as Traffic Court judges and court personnel routinely granted "special consideration" by fixing tickets for individuals who were politically connected or who happened to be the family or friends of those in power. The problem has pervaded Philadelphia for many years and destroyed the credibility of the court.
Traffic Court began imploding for the umpteenth time in September 2011, when the FBI raided the homes and offices of several Traffic Court judges and served grand jury subpoenas on numerous court employees. Eventually, seven judges and a court administrator were convicted in a ticket-fixing scandal that showcased the widespread corruption in Traffic Court.
A 2012 report commissioned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the judges "routinely made, accepted, and granted third-party requests for preferential treatment" for those who were politically connected or were family or friends of the court. This practice resulted in a "two-track system of justice, one for the politically connected and another for the unwitting general public."
The report also pointed out that the citizens of the city and the commonwealth were "deprived of revenue that would have been collected from violators but for their ability to manipulate the outcome of cases through behind-the-scenes political influence."
To curtail the corruption, the legislature acted to dismantle Traffic Court. In June 2013, jurisdiction over traffic violations was transferred to the newly created Traffic Division of Philadelphia Municipal Court. Motor vehicle cases are initially heard by law-trained hearing officers, and appeals are heard by law-trained judges. They respect the rule of law, helping to eliminate a two-track system of justice. Patronage hiring has been eliminated.
Traffic Court has been an abomination and an affront to the citizens of this city, where actual judges serve with integrity and fidelity to their offices. Traffic Court, however, still exists because it is enshrined in the Pennsylvania Constitution. To formally abolish Traffic Court, the constitution must be amended. Appearing on the Pennsylvania ballot on April 26 is the Philadelphia Traffic Court Abolition Amendment. This measure, if passed, would eliminate Traffic Court once and for all. If defeated, the former system of corruption and favoritism could easily return.
The Philadelphia Bar Association urges the public to vote yes on April 26.
Abolishing Traffic Court is an important step toward ensuring Pennsylvanians' faith and trust in the judicial system. We encourage you to make your voice heard.