Report finds Philadelphia Traffic Court routinely fixed tickets for pols
November 21, 2012By Dave Davies
A report on Philadelphia Traffic court has concluded that judges routinely granted preferential treatment to the politically connected, and that a ticket for the wife of a State Supreme Court justice was dismissed on the same day the justice personally visited a court administrator.
The report found that "preferential treatment of connected violators was so commonplace that it was broadly accepted by court employees."
The report found that the practice largely ended after a September 2011 FBI raid on several judges and court officials, but that until then, it appeared from interviews with employees that every judge on the court participated.
The report, prepared for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by consultant William G. Chadwick, concluded that the primary reason for practice is "the intensely political environment of Traffic Court, where most employees are hired based on political connections and where party allegiance often determines employees' career paths."
Traffic Court judges are elected with party support, and do not have to be attorneys to run for the office.
Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts said the report's portrait of Traffic Court operations is eye-opening.
"It's not a pretty picture," Marks said. "It shows how (the court) violates equal justice for all, and that's incredibly troubling. Actually, it's a disgrace."
The report identified U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the chairman of Philadelphia's Democratic party as a frequent source of requests for special treatment. Brady denied the allegation.
"That's totally untrue," Brady said in a telephone interview. "I never requested special treatment, never talked to a judge or talked to anybody in traffic court."
Asked if someone might have been making requests on his behalf, Brady said, "If they were, I would absolutely fire them."
Brady said when constituents ask for help with a traffic ticket, he sometimes provides an attorney who's willing to work without a fee as a favor to the Democratic party.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the Traffic Court review today.
The report found that in July 2010 a ticket issued to Lise Rapaport, the wife of State Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, for driving the wrong way on a one-way street was dimissed.
The report said that McCaffery drove his wife to Traffic Court on the day of her hearing, and that McCaffery met outstide the building with William Hird, a court administrator whom the report said acted "as a clearinghouse for many external consideration requests."
A call to McCaffery was not immediately returned. The report said that in an interview McCaffery said he'd met with Hird only to request that an out-of-town judge be put on his wife's case "because it would be a conflict for a Philadelphia Traffic Court judge" to hear his wife's case. McCaffery is from Philadelphia.
The report says McCaffery contacted Hird because "he knew Hird from political campaigns."
Marks said the account of McCaffery's conduct is troubling.
"If the report is true, it shows that a justice of the supreme court used his power and authority to affect a government function on behalf of a member of his immediate family," Marks said, "and that's plain wrong."
It could also land McCaffery in trouble if the state Judicial Conduct Board decides takes action on the issue. If the board decides there was misconduct, it can bring charges which would be heard by the Court of Judicial Discipline, which can impose sanctions on the justice.
The report said a number of fundamental changes should be considered, including requiring that Traffic Court judges be attorneys, or eliminating the position of Traffic Court judge and employing non-elected hearing officers to handle most traffic offenses.
You can read the entire report below.