The Cost Of Playing In Traffic Court

Posted: May 14, 1997

Traffic Court is Philadelphia's judicial backwater. A safe place to stash party hacks, generate patronage jobs and fix tickets or throw out cases to earn favors. This practice - by both parties - has had a corrosive effect.

The Daily News series ``Hell on Wheels,'' in February, spelled it out: 61 percent of traffic tickets are ignored; the court has a backlog of $335 million in unpaid tickets. Violators ignore tickets and court appearances because there's no way to compel them to pay. Police, frustrated by the court's incompetence, have curtailed enforcement.

It is time to bring intelligence, independence and professionalism to Traffic Court. A handful can do that among the 13 running for three seats in Tuesday's primary elections. Most are cross-filed on both party ballots.

In the Republican primary, we recommend Patrick J. Cubbage Sr., Michael C. Gallagher and Francis E. Kelly. In the Democratic primary, our choices are Patrick J. Cubbage Sr., Francis E. Kelly and Bernard A. Lopez.

Cubbage has been a police officer, detective in the district attorney's office, chief inspector in the sheriff's office (where he set up a program to train deputies) and bail commissioner.

Gallagher, a Republican ward leader, is a former writ server. He knows the city's and state's traffic laws and has practical ideas for improving the courts, including opening a state driver's license center at the courts so unlicensed drivers can apply easily.

Kelly, an incumbent seeking a full term, used to handle constituent service for state Rep. John Taylor, R-Phila. He has superior intelligence and grasp of the problems facing the court.

Lopez was not endorsed by the Democratic party organization, which could be in his favor. As a former administrator in the state Department of Revenue, Lopez brings some knowledge of revenue collection, expertise the court obviously needs. He was a legislative aide to former state Sen. Freeman Hankins and currently works as a consultant to small businesses.

Remember: Traffic Court deals only with moving violations - potentially dangerous acts that can cause death, injury and property damage and that contribute to higher insurance premiums. Make it worthy of respect.

For Municipal Court The judge in Municipal Court is the first one you get hauled up in front of after being arrested. The court also holds nonjury trials on misdemeanor charges with penalties of up to five years, as well as on landlord-tenant disputes, code enforcement cases and small claims.

Three seats are at stake in this year's election. Only three Republicans are running (all crossfiled in each party primary), so there's no GOP contest, but 10 candidates seek the Democratic nominations. Here are our picks in Tuesday's Democratic primary:

Marsha Neifield, a lawyer for 19 years with broad experience in criminal and civil matters, shows an understanding of how the municipal courts often set the tenor for the courts higher up. She vows to give a strict look at preliminary charges to make sure defective cases don't float up the system and clog the higher courts.

John Pettit Jr. was city prothonotary (chief clerk) for 17 years and a major contributor to development of the city's tax court, which cleared a backlog of delinquent tax cases, generated an extra $30 million for the city in three years and served as a model for other cities. Pettit, who computerized the prothonotary's office, has good ideas about how to streamline court operations, including appointing Municipal Court judges to hear minor disputes that routinely clog the Court of Common Pleas calendar.

Craig Washington was a staff lawyer with Community Legal Services, helping low-income clients with consumer, housing and family problems. He was an assistant district attorney, prosecuting hundreds of criminal cases. Since 1985, he has been in private practice and was legal counsel to the late state Rep. David Richardson and his successor, John Myers.

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