Inquirer Editorial: Thank God for the feds

Posted: February 01, 2013

With Thursday's unveiling of corruption charges against nine current and former Traffic Court judges, the U.S. Justice Department has again proven it is Philadelphia's most effective good-government group.

In a tone-deaf political environment where fixing traffic tickets is seen as no more harmful than double-parking, these charges bring hope. Maybe the people in charge of Traffic Court will hear the music and clean up a system that allows dangerous drivers to go unpunished just because they have friends in high places.

Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille heard the music after the FBI raided Traffic Court in 2011. He ordered a sweeping investigation and came up with a scorching report showing widespread ticket-fixing.

The feds took it further. Their indictment alleges that if you hoisted a few at the Fireside Tavern, a legendary political hangout in South Philadelphia, barkeep and Traffic Court Judge Michael J. Sullivan would take care of your tickets.

If you did maintenance work on the Cadillac or any other car belonging to Judge Fred Perri Sr. or his family, or maybe sent him a few dozen shrimp and crab cakes, the indictment alleges, you could get your tickets fixed.

The Justice Department should be commended for its work. So should Castille. But unlike the feds, who no doubt got well-deserved pats on the back where they work, Castille's colleagues, angry that he released his report without consulting them, rewarded him with derision.

His fellow justices removed Castille as the Supreme Court's liaison for Philadelphia courts, reportedly because his report included an allegation that Justice Seamus McCaffery met with a court official regarding a ticket his wife had received. McCaffery maintains he did nothing wrong.

In any case, the indictments Thursday must not become just another chapter in the folklore of a corrupt city. They should be a catalyst for change. An FBI investigation during former Mayor John F. Street's administration helped create the climate for the election of Mayor Nutter, who promised to clean up City Hall.

Thursday's indictments represent a similar opportunity. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) wants to liquidate Traffic Court and hand its responsibilities to Municipal Court. It's a good idea. At least Municipal Court judges are lawyers; Traffic Court judges are just blessed by the Democratic political machine.

But the high court doesn't have to wait on Pileggi's bill. It can immediately transfer traffic cases to the Municipal Court - and it should, to vindicate itself after the justices' shabby treatment of Castille.

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