At Traffic Court, Signs Of New Chief

Posted: December 18, 1986

In the last days of his administration, Gov. Thornburgh has considered naming a Republican to a full five-year term as president judge of Philadelphia's problem-plagued Traffic Court, court sources said yesterday.

The sources said that the governor has been weighing whether to appoint George Twardy, 58, a former bail bondsman and city magistrate who has been a Traffic Court judge since 1971. He would replace President Judge Salvatore DeMeo, who has been serving without a fixed term at the governor's pleasure.

An aide to Twardy said yesterday that the judge's office had prepared a news release announcing the appointment but that the release was withheld late in the afternoon after a spokesman for the governor said "no appointment has been made yet."

Royal D. Hart, chief clerk of Traffic Court, said yesterday that Twardy had told him that he was "expecting" the appointment after having met with aides to the governor Tuesday in Harrisburg. On the court, the president judge controls judicial administration.

If such a change were made, DeMeo would remain on Traffic Court but would take a $500 cut from his $35,000 salary as president judge, the sources said.

Twardy would be Thornburgh's choice for the position, according to the sources, because he is guaranteed a seat on Traffic Court until 1991, having won a retention election last year to a six-year term. The other Republican judges on Traffic Court face such elections next year.

"With the bad publicity about judges generally, 1987 may be a bad year to face retention," a Democratic judge on Traffic Court said yesterday. "This would be a good way to ensure a Republican president judge for the next five years."

In 1982, an audit by then-City Controller Thomas A. Leonard found that 88 percent of the court's employees hired by DeMeo, and 77 percent of those who had been promoted, were registered Republicans.

Hart was named Traffic Court's chief administrative officer in 1985 at a time when the court had become enmeshed in a ticket-fixing scandal that resulted in the convictions of 13 former court employees, including Dominic DeMeo, the son of the president judge. Hart's appointment eliminated the president judge's power to hire court employees.

Hart's mandate, as described by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert N. C. Nix Jr., was "to stop the stealing there."

In February, Hart clashed with DeMeo over the dismissal by Hart of eight Republican employees of Traffic Court as part of what Hart described as a ''reorganization."

DeMeo tried to fire Hart, but DeMeo backed down after Nix threatened him with suspension. Thornburgh sided with Nix in the matter but expressed general support for DeMeo.

In considering the appointment of Twardy as president judge of Traffic Court this late in his administration, Thornburgh would find himself weighing an action similar to one he denounced eight years ago. In the last days of Gov. Milton J. Shapp's administration in January 1979, shortly before Thornburgh took office, Shapp appointed Dominick Iannarelli, a Democrat, as the Traffic Court's president judge.

"It is disappointing that Gov. Shapp did not have the courage to do what he must have known was right and proper in this appointment," Thornburgh said at the time.

In 1981, Thornburgh received his chance to appoint a president judge of Traffic Court when Iannarelli reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. But instead of appointing an attorney who had not been part of the court, as he had advised Shapp to do, Thornburgh selected DeMeo, a former Republican leader in South Philadelphia's First Ward who had been a Traffic Court judge since 1969.

Thornburgh's press secretary David Runkel said earlier this year that the governor named DeMeo president judge because he "was the best choice available on the court at that time."

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