Philly Traffic Court’s days are numbered

    The scandal-ridden Philadelphia Traffic Court is on its way out and, reformers hope, ticket-fixing along with it.

    Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to soon sign a bill abolishing the court, a measure unanimously passed by the state Senate last week.

    Introduced by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, the bill reassigns traffic duties to the Philadelphia Municipal Court.

    It comes in response to the corruption that has long plagued the Traffic Court, the only separate traffic court in the state. Most recently, nine current and former judges were issued federal indictments on charges of ticket-fixing.

    “This court has proven to be immune to all reform efforts,” Pileggi said. “It is past time to finally do away with this institution.”

    Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, an organization dedicated to improving the state’s court system, supported the bill.

    “We think that, hopefully, by transferring the traffic functions to Municipal Court, and with appointed hearing officers, there will be a positive step on the road to reform,” said Lynn A. Marks, executive director.

    But, she cautioned, abolishing the court won’t stamp out corruption.

    “Everyday politicians and community leaders will have to work together to change the policy of favoritism,” she said. “This culture of entitlement has to end.”

    Municipal Court will take up traffic cases

    Specifically, the bill calls for a new traffic division within the Municipal Court; two new judges; the appointment of hearing officers for traffic cases; and an annual report on the traffic division.

    The new positions will take time to fill, as the judges will have to be nominated by the governor and approved by the Senate, and potential hearing officers will have to apply.

    The Municipal Court will have to fold in the Traffic Court’s workload throughout this transition.

    The opposition and effects

    Lawmakers who fought the legislation in the state House, where it passed 114-81, cited this increased burden on the Municipal Court as one of the reasons for their opposition.

    The most immediate effect of the bill will be the cancellation of elections for judgeships scheduled for later this year. Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Pileggi, said the sitting judges will technically finish out their terms, whether they end this year or in 2017.

    Three of the four sitting judges have been suspended and aren’t serving at the moment. Only Christine Solomon is currently hearing cases, but she too is facing disciplinary action. If she stays on the bench for her full term, the President Judge of the Municipal Court, Marsha H. Neifield, will determine her caseload, Arneson said.

    Lingering uncertainty

    It is unclear at this point what will happen to the Traffic Court’s building at 800 Spring Garden St., its contents and those who work there.

    The Traffic Court’s Administrative Judge Gary Glazer said it’s “premature to discuss any of this because [Corbett] hasn’t signed the bill.”

    At the moment there are 112 employees (excluding judges) keeping the traffic court running.

    The bill will go into effect immediately after it is signed, but the change is expected to unfold incrementally.

    An accompanying state-constitutional amendment that formally abolishes the court will require a second passage by the General Assembly and a public referendum.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal