Traffic Court reforms are needed urgently and now

Posted: December 03, 2012

Lynn A. Marks is executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts

Suzanne Almeida is PMC's program director

What is it about Philadelphia's Traffic Court? Since its inception in 1938, the court has been riddled from time to time with favoritism, unprofessionalism, and backroom dealing. The recent reports of rampant ticket-fixing are eerily reminiscent of the historical corruption in the court. Allegations that a "fixer" existed, that names were handed around on index cards or handwritten onto dockets, and that covert meetings were held with key judicial staff, could just as easily have occurred in the 1930s as the 2010s.

Philadelphians should be outraged that we have a court system where judges and court staff blatantly disregard the conduct rules, where those with political clout receive preferential treatment, and where the shadow of federal indictment hovers. We deserve better.

Courts should be places where all people can go with confidence that they will be heard by qualified, fair, and impartial judges, and that everyone coming before the court will be treated equally. If the preliminary findings in a recent investigative report are verified, that has clearly not been the case in Traffic Court.

All but the most connected Philadelphians have been victimized by the unequal administration of justice. Not only does this undermine the guarantee of equal protection under the law, it allows the privileged to go unpunished and results in the loss of revenue when fines are improperly waived or decreased.

Of all the revelations spotlighted by the report, perhaps the most disgraceful was the widespread acceptance of this behavior by the judges and staff in Traffic Court. The practice of granting special consideration was viewed as a fringe benefit of their positions. Investigators reported that some witnesses subscribed to the self-delusionary notion that if money did not change hands, the ticket-fixing was not improper. But this overlooks the obvious reality that conduct resulting in unequal justice is inherently improper and that favors conferred on the well-connected are meted out for value beyond cash.

Favoritism and corruption at any level lead to public mistrust of the court system. Although Traffic Court is designated as a "minor court," that does not mean it is less important than other courts. To the contrary, the vast majority of contact that the general public has with the court system is through "people's courts" such as the Traffic or Municipal Courts in Philadelphia and District Courts in other counties. That makes it even more crucial that the business of these courts be conducted in a fair, transparent, and impartial manner. Judges and court staff are not only responsible for issuing summonses, deciding cases, and sanctioning offenders. They also serve as the public face of one of our three branches of government and must uphold the integrity of the judicial system.

It is easy to be disheartened by the seemingly interminable cycle of backroom politics. But let's make this an opportunity to institute real reform of Traffic Court.

First, those judges and court staff who are found to have participated in ticket-fixing must be sanctioned. The judges who are still on the bench should not be hearing cases. This cannot wait on the outcome of the pending federal investigation, particularly since several of the judges or their personal assistants have already candidly admitted committing the offensive conduct. Misconduct relating to the administration of justice is the most egregious form of judicial misconduct. Although the presumption of innocence cannot be ignored, the failure to immediately remove these judges compounds the harm to the public.

Structural reforms to the court are also needed. Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is researching the viability of a number of proposals such as: anonymous and mandatory reporting of problems, with discipline imposed for noncompliance; requiring Traffic Court judges to be lawyers (whose licenses would be in jeopardy for this type of misconduct); tougher entrance exams; enhanced ethics training; merit selection or appointment of Traffic Court judges; and replacing Traffic Court with an administrative agency, to name just a few. We are also studying other major jurisdictions to serve as models.

None of these reforms is sufficient on its own. After all, the biggest problem is the culture of "fixing." This is both good and bad news. The good news is that long-range legislative and administrative action may not be required to correct the problem. The bad news is that the problems go well beyond lax enforcement of existing rules and require comprehensive efforts to change attitudes, expectations, and ultimately behavior.

This is difficult, but not impossible. Philadelphians may have been victimized, but they are not powerless. The culture of entitlement can end. We can stop asking for and expecting special consideration for ourselves or others. We can demand that our community and political leaders abide by the same rules as the rest of us. We can choose judges based on their qualifications, experience, and integrity, not their names, ballot position, or fund-raising prowess.

Positive changes have already begun. Under the strong leadership of specially-appointed Administrative Judge Gary S. Glazer, and with the invaluable help of some dedicated Traffic Court staff, merit-based hiring has been introduced, all employees have undergone ethics training, and court officers are now sworn in by Glazer and given instructions about the importance of integrity.

It's up to each of us to make sure that these reforms are successful. Share your ideas for meaningful change with policy makers, the media, and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts at info@pmconline.org.

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