Karen Heller: In this court, he stood out

Willie F. Singletary, elected to the Traffic Court bench in 2007, resigned amid scandal.
Willie F. Singletary, elected to the Traffic Court bench in 2007, resigned amid scandal. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 04, 2012

Friends, Philadelphia is a magic place where anyone - even you! - can become a judge, provided you know the right people in mediocre places.

Which would be the political hackatorium known as the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee.

Why bother attending law school with all those books and stress?

At the junkyard known as Traffic Court, no elected judge has a law degree. College? Optional. But remembering friends when it comes to fixing tickets? Essential.

In 2007, Judge Willie F. Singletary handily won election to the bench by virtue of that most estimable criterion: His name, selected by lottery, appeared atop the ballot.

Why require talent if luck prevails?

In record time, Judge Willie distinguished himself. After two years on the bench, the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline called him "the pure antithesis of the concept of a judge."

Was Judge Willie, the multicar crack-up of the motorist judicial system, disciplined? Sort of. He was given a reprimand, a soup├žon of probation, then returned to his job, proving that, if nothing else, he has a talent for defying conventional wisdom.

As does Traffic Court.

Judge Willie, who earns $89,000 a year, turns out to be appropriately named. In December, possibly as an early Christmas present, he showed a court cashier two cellphone pictures of his disrobed and happy member, and asked, "Do you like that?"

The cashier, unnamed in the judge's most recent conduct review, did not. She filed a complaint.

Two days later, Judge Willie found the cashier "upset and crying." He said she shouldn't worry about being fired, that his uncle owned the subcontractor that employed her, that he would look after her.

Instead of Mad Men, it's Bad Magistrate.

Except Judge Willie's uncle doesn't own the subcontractor, according to a company official, nor does any other relative, suggesting he may have a somewhat flaccid relationship with the truth.

To be fair, according to the complaint, Judge Willie also showed the cashier photos of his daughters in a bath, of himself (dressed) before attending church, of his BMW, and of an unidentified female wearing, and I quote directly, "black booty shorts."

Let history note that this may be the first judicial-conduct complaint mentioning "black booty shorts."

Given that this is Philadelphia, it may not be the last.

Last week, Judge Willie finally resigned via iPhone, possibly the same one that got him into trouble.

He shouldn't have been on any bench in the first place, and it took years of screwups, mishaps, and complaints to remove him. Judgment isn't part of his repertoire.

Back in December, after the FBI and a grand jury began investigating the august institution's practice of fixing tickets for politically connected friends, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille placed Traffic Court under the administrative supervision of Common Pleas Court Judge Gary S. Glazer, a former federal prosecutor of corruption cases.

To which we ask, "What took you so long?"

Castille said that day, "The practice of accepting external requests for favorable treatment was so prevailing that it has become institutionalized in the operations of the court, and it involved administrative staff in addition to the judges."

Traffic Court was on notice. You might think the judges would correct their behavior, and start acting like, you know, actual professionals.

But no. About six hours later on that very same day, Judge Willie, the Learned Hand of Traffic Court, chose to share those pics of his private gavel.

Honestly, they ought to erect a statue to this man.

After all, Judge Willie arrived on the bench with such arresting credentials.

A clean driving record and no outstanding fines?

Uh, no.

At one point, Judge Willie owed $11,427 in fines for 55 traffic violations, including motoring without a license and reckless driving. His license was suspended until 2011, because he hadn't paid his fines.

Judge Willie sat on the bench ruling on laws he had failed to follow. For most of his time in office, he was legally barred from driving.

Singletary began his elected career much the way it ended, in glory.

In 2007, he was videotaped at a motorcycle event asking bikers: "If you all can give me $20. You're going to need me in Traffic Court, am I right about that?" Adding, "Now you all want me to get there, you're all going to need my hookup, right?"

And now, Judge Willie, the jurist with exquisite judgment, drives off into the sunset.

That is, provided he's paid all outstanding traffic fines.

Happy motoring!

Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @kheller. Read her blog at www.philly.com/blinq.