Is a high court power struggle at work in the Traffic Court Scandal?

    There are so many things that are fascinating about the report issued last week on ticket-fixing at Philadelphia Traffic Court that the fact that judges routinely granted special treatment to politicians is well down the list.

    It could be that this damning (and very entertaining) report is a spear hurled by one State Supreme Court Justice at another, and their battle could decide who controls hundreds of jobs in the Philadelphia court system.


    The review of Traffic Court was ordered after FBI agents raided the offices of the present and past administrative judge of Traffic Court and those of another court official, William Hird in September of last year.

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    It’s common when the feds are engaged in a corruption investigation for local officials in charge of the agency under the gun not to muck around too much on that turf. If you start interviewing people who may be targets or witnesses in a federal case, sticky legal questions arise.

    But in this case State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille commissioned his long-trusted friend, attorney Bill Chadwick, to head an independent investigation of Traffic Court. His team interviewed 42 people, many of them in the feds’ crosshairs.

    Why not just stand back and let the federal investigation take its course? The simple answer is that it’s the right thing do do: clean up the mess there, hold people accountable and build public support for reform. And that’s reason enough.

    More to the story?

    But I’ve also heard that one reason Castille undertook the review and made the report public is that he knew it would be very damaging to Justice Seamas McCaffery, who is said to be awaiting Castille’s mandatory retirement in a year so he can take control of the Philadelphia court system.

    The Supreme Court runs the entire state court system, and Castille is currently the top dog in matters here.Neither Castille nor McCaffery returned by call last week.

    But it turns that that the most interesting case in the report involves the dismissal of a ticket issued to McCaffery’s wife on the same day McCaffery had a parking lot conversation with the very Traffic Court official named in the report as the guy who served as a “clearinghouse” for requests for special consideration there.

    McCaffery told an investigator for the Chadwick report that he just summoned the court official, William Hird to request an out-of-town judge for his wife, because it would be a conflict for a Philadelphia judge to hear her case.

    I’m not sure exactly why that would be a conflict, and in any case McCaffery knows there’s a procedure for seeking recusal. And it isn’t to summon a court official for a private chat in your car.

    The report says an unnamed Traffic Court administrator recalled Hird saying he’d escorted McCaffery’s wife into the building and seen to it that she was “okay.”

    What happens now?

    The state ethics act says it’s a conflict of interest for a public official to use “the authority of his office or employment or any confidential information received through his holding public office or employment for the private pecuniary benefit of himself, [or] a member of his immediate family…”

    A simple reading of the statute suggests that if McCaffery went to Traffic Court and got his wife off, he could have a problem. Did he?A lot depends here on what the official McCaffery spoke to in the parking lot, William Hird, has to say. He declined to speak to the report’s investigators and resigned his Traffic Court post a year ago.

    But Hird has a lot more to worry about than how his account might affect McCaffery. Hird is one of the three officials whose offices were raided by the FBI last September, so he has plenty of legal issues of his own.

    Judicial misconduct in Pennsylvania is investigated by the Judicial Conduct Board, which can act in response to complaints or its own. If it finds there’s evidence of misconduct, it brings a case to the Court of Judicial Discipline, which can reprimand, suspend, or remove a judge from office.

    When I spoke to Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts last week, she found the McCaffery episode as described in the report troubling, and had this to say about the prospect of a Judicial Conduct Board inquiry:

    “Somebody can file a complaint. For all I know,somebody already has. And the board itself could read the paper or hear your report, and they could start an investigation. That could happen at any point.”

    Stay tuned

    McCaffery’s wife’s ticket hearing and his parking lot conversation happened in July, 2010, more than a year before the feds’ raid.

    It’s entirely conceivable that the incident became known as the investigation proceeded, and as Castille considered what to do, dredging details of the McCaffery incident up for the world to see might have been an appealing side benefit to launching a Traffic Court review.

    And airing the whole business by releasing the report (after Craig McCoy wrote about it in Wednesday’s Inquirer) put members of the Judicial Conduct Board in a public spotlight as they consider what to do.

    I’m not saying I know Castille did any or all of this to thwart McCaffery’s ambitions or damage his career. As I said, neither man would talk to me.But there’s a lot of talk, and this is an interesting story to watch.

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