Pennsylvania’s ‘Most Corrupt Court’ Could be Closed

Published June 5, 2013

It’s been called the most corrupt court in Pennsylvania. And now it soon could be no more.

After some passionate dissent from Philadelphia-area Democrats, the state House on June 4 voted 117- 81 to pass Senate Bill 333, which begins the process of amending the Pennsylvania Constitution to end the court’s existence.

The drive to amend the state constitution came after a wave of scandals in the Philadelphia Traffic Court.

In January, nine current and former judges of the court were indicted for their alleged roles in a ticket-fixing scheme. The judges are accused of unfairly favoring politically connected friends, business associates, and family and dismissing tickets in exchange for personal favors.

Three Guilty Pleas

Former Traffic Court judges Fortunato Perri Sr., H. Warren Hogeland, and Kenneth N. Miller pleaded guilty to conspiracy and mail and wire fraud in connection with the scandal.

Perri received a free patio, discounted lawn services, and other perks as payment for fixing tickets.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Chester) sponsored successful legislation to kill the court, saying there was no “good reason for taxpayers to continue footing the bill for a court that is unnecessary and has become an embarrassment to the state’s judicial system.”

Rep. Ronald Waters (D-Philadelphia) argued against the proposed constitutional amendment, saying the Legislature should “not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Waters said although it was fair to criticize the corrupt Traffic Court judges, attacking the institution of the court will only hurt Philadelphians.

Despite the legislative vote, amending the state constitution is an arduous process that takes a minimum of two years and eventually requires a voter referendum.

Traffic Court Transfer

In the interim, the state House on June 5 approved Senate Bill 334, which would shutter the Traffic Court and transfer its responsibilities to a newly established Traffic Division within the Philadelphia Municipal Court.  

SB 334 requires Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature to become law. SB 333 does not because it is a constitutional amendment.

The Philadelphia Traffic Court is composed of seven elected judges. There are no real requirements—such as a holding a law degree—to be a judge on the court.

Judges on the Philadelphia Traffic Court are paid $91,764 and receive state benefits.

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said S.B. 334 will transfer sitting Traffic Court judges to the Traffic Division of Municipal Court, but “the bill does not address the duties of these judges.”

Marks stressed that for reform to be successful, the new Traffic Division will need “mechanisms in place to hold the hearing officers accountable for their behavior,” such as a complaints process and performance review program.

The Pennsylvania Senate Appropriations Committee said the state could save $650,000 in the coming fiscal year through judicial reorganization. However, the committee also said amending the state constitution would cost between $2 million and $3 million.

Lawyers Need Not Apply

Interestingly, Pileggi’s bills do not require the new Traffic Division judges to be lawyers, although it does require they complete a course in traffic law.

Erik Arneson, spokesperson for Pileggi, said this was done to ensure the traffic court judges are kept “analogous to district judges,” who are also not required to hold law degrees in Pennsylvania

For Rep. Michael McGeehan, D-Philadelphia, this is precisely the problem.

McGeehan criticized the Legislature for singling out Philadelphia and focusing only on “transitory problems in the Philadelphia Traffic Court.” McGeehan cited a lengthy list of other judicial misdeeds and argued real reform would come only through requiring district judges to be lawyers.

But will Pileggi’s reform at least end ticket-fixing? Not everyone is optimistic.

John Bowman, communications director of the National Motorists Association, said corruption related to traffic laws is nothing new.

Corruption “tends to thrive when there are enough unreasonable and arbitrary laws on the books that nobody gives a second thought to giving someone a break,” he said.

Gary Joseph Wilson (gary@paindependent) reports for the Pennsylvania Independent, where this article first appeared. Used with permission.