The Philadelphia Traffic Court, described by one legislator as "dysfunctional," would be abolished by a pair of bills that sailed through the Pennsylvania Senate on Wednesday.
The bills — one to transfer the court's responsibilities to the Philadelphia Municipal Court, the other calling for a statewide vote on an amendment to the state constitution that would eliminate the city's unique traffic-court mandate — both passed unanimously.
"This is a court with a multi-generational tradition of dysfunction," said the bills' sponsor, Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware. "No one can rationally defend its continued existence."
The bills now move to the House for consideration. The resolution calling for a constitutional amendment would require approval in each of two legislative sessions before it could be placed on the ballot for a popular vote — in 2015 at the earliest.
Since January, when a federal indictment portrayed the court as a pit of patronage and corruption, nine current or former traffic judges have been charged with dismissing or reducing citations for friends, relatives, business associates and political allies. Judges Kenneth Miller, 76, of Brookhaven, and H. Warren Hogeland, 75, of Richboro, became the first to plead guilty when they admitted Tuesday that they fixed tickets for people with connections.
Prosecutors say the situation has kept dangerous drivers on the road and deprived the city and state of revenue from fines. Defense lawyers argue that the judges did not profit from the favors and that the court has worked that way for a century.
"After the most recent round of indictments, the situation ... is so bad that only one judge out of seven is still serving on the court," Pileggi noted.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Gary S. Glazer, a former federal prosecutor tapped by the state's chief justice to clean up the traffic court, said Wednesday that the court's future is up to the Legislature. Glazer said he is glad the Senate took action, but declined to comment on the specifics of the legislation.
"I think the important thing is that (the traffic court) stay on the public radar and that the practices of the past stop, and that the court become a responsive, responsible public institution," he said.
The judicial reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts said Pileggi's proposals generally make sense for the traffic court, but that structural change is not enough.
"Policymakers, community leaders and everyday Philadelphians must work together to change the culture of favoritism and backroom dealing that has plagued Philadelphia Traffic Court from its inception," said Lynn Marks, the group's director.