Inquirer Editorial: Court squabble not over justice

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille
Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille
Posted: January 14, 2013

After going weeks without officially responding to a scathing exposé of Philadelphia Traffic Court's ticket-fixing culture, a controlling faction of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided to instead shoot the messenger.

In doing so, the court invites speculation that some of its members' highest priority may be to avoid embarrassment - rather than move more aggressively to remedy problems in the lower courts they administer.

The high court's recent replacement of Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille as overseer of the city courts - a role that prompted him to push for local reforms - certainly does nothing to address atrocious Traffic Court practices documented by a report presented to the high court in November.

An investigator found that Traffic Court judges routinely gave breaks to political insiders who had appeared before them to fight traffic violations and accompanying fines.

One judge recounted how, as a new arrival on Traffic Court, he was advised by another judge not to buck the ticket-fixing culture, but rather to "get with the game plan." Another judge was quoted as dismissing the outrageous, two-tiered system of justice as "just politics. That's all."

What's needed most from the high court is a plan to root out the problems that tilt the scales of justice and undermine confidence in Traffic Court, as well as in the judiciary statewide.

While the justices approved the appointment more than a year ago of an interim Traffic Court administrator, Common Pleas Court Judge Gary S. Glazer, who has set the right tone, they need to move ahead on reforms that will last long after Glazer moves on to his next assignment.

Yet the high court's behind-the-scenes decision to replace Castille as city court liaison with Justice J. Michael Eakin was apparently rooted in the chafing of some justices over the fact that they weren't involved in deciding whether to release the Traffic Court investigation publicly.

It's just as well that the Traffic Court findings were made public without delay, in particular since the inquiry turned up an embarrassing revelation that Castille's fellow justice from Philadelphia, Seamus McCaffery, once met with a court official to discuss a ticket McCaffery's wife received.

It was important to air that information, along with McCaffery's assertion that he had not influenced the outcome of his wife's ticket for driving the wrong way on Market Street in Center City. Moreover, Traffic Court problems stretch back decades, as do reform efforts.

With an independent FBI probe of Traffic Court under way, this is no time for the esteemed justices on the state's highest court to be sidetracked from enacting broad-based reform measures due to their infighting. So it's good that Eakin has issued a statement saying he is committed to reform.

Under Castille's supervision, the city's criminal courts also have been making progress in stemming a high dismissal rate, no-shows, and witness intimidation. On both fronts, the Supreme Court should be moving forward.

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