On leaving the city's old Family Court building, The Inquirer recently reported, some judges saw fit to take the fixtures with them to their new chambers. This neatly illustrated the distance between judicial impropriety and criminal guilt. No one - including the city officials who promised the court's antique accoutrements to the building's buyer - is planning to make a federal case out of this. Nor should they. Still, many Philadelphians are no doubt dismayed that their designated arbiters of justice appeared to stoop to stripping a public facility for parts.
Because judges must be held to higher standards, they are necessarily subject to special rules and a system for enforcing them. Pennsylvania's judicial discipline system was sorely needed over the past year - from the highest court, which defrocked a justice amid scandal, to Philadelphia's lowly, disbanded Traffic Court, most of which came under federal indictment. And while the state's judicial conduct rules have been laudably strengthened, their enforcement remains inconsistent at best and nonexistent at worst.
Traffic Court's implosion provided a classic example of the need for judicial discipline as well as the shortcomings of Pennsylvania's regime. While a jury found most of the judges guilty only of the least serious federal charges, the prosecution and a state Supreme Court review revealed Traffic Court to be a long-standing mockery of the judiciary, replete with favoritism for the personally and politically connected. And yet the judiciary's response has been halting and disjointed.
The necessity of judicial discipline was most acute in the case of a former administrative traffic judge, Michael Sullivan, who unlike most of his colleagues was acquitted of all federal charges. But the state Supreme Court rescinded Sullivan's suspension in November, clearing the way for him to be paid his $90,000-a-year salary for the two years he has been suspended as well the remaining three years of his term.
Fortunately, the state's Judicial Conduct Board recently intervened, charging Sullivan with six counts of misconduct and noting correctly that the allegations "undermine both public confidence in the judiciary and its reputation" - such as it is. That will save the state from the embarrassment of paying Sullivan at least until the case is adjudicated.
Unfortunately, the judiciary's handling of another at-large traffic judge, Christine Solomon, has been decidedly less, well, Solomonic. Having joined the court after the federal investigation, Solomon was not among those indicted, but she repeatedly and brazenly stonewalled the Supreme Court inquiry into ticket-fixing. Nevertheless, the court dropped its case against Solomon last month after the Judicial Conduct Board revealed that it had let her off with a "private warning." That leaves Solomon sitting as a monument to the Traffic Court travesty and a rebuke to any serious notion of judicial standards.