Election v. Selection

Nine current or former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges were charged Thursday with conspiracy and fraud after a three-year FBI probe into ticket-fixing. Traffic court judge Willie Singletary listens to his attorney talk outside after he appeared in Federal Courthouse in Center City. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

At a recent political corruption trial in Philadelphia, an assistant district attorney attacked a defendant, “Isn’t it true that you took a $10,000 payoff to look the other way?”

The witness refused to respond.

“I will ask you again. Didn’t you accept a $10,000 bribe to compromise this case?”

The witness remained silent.

The judge motioned to the defendant and said, “Will you please answer the question?”

“Oh, sorry, your Honor,” the defendant replied. “I thought he was talking to you.”

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Unfortunately, in Philadelphia, that variation of an oft-popular joke is the reality.

Philadelphia – you know – the town that loves you back … to the tune of a 77-count indictment.

Not since one of the accused, who allegedly put his “judicial member” on display, became late night TV and radio fodder, have Philadelphia’s judges been put under a microscope and had their performance measured so accurately. Unfortunately, the traffic court judges have come up a little short.

The FBI probe into ticket fixing by Philadelphia judges has been a three-year project – three long years, apparently, of taxpayers being ripped off and the politically-connected beating the system.

With Philadelphia’s city government not exactly having a reputation for being the beacon for best practices, it should make us all wonder whether we need to rethink how we can emerge from this rapid erosion of public confidence in local government.

Perhaps we need to completely stop electing and retaining judges, and exclusively use merit selection in order to eliminate reduce corruption in Traffic Court.

I grew up believing that every judge had to have a law degree. How shocked I was when I realized just about anyone can run for Traffic Court judge.

There are plenty of pundits who are chiming in on how to reform Philadelphia’s broken judicial system. Some candidates are suggesting you elect them to replace the incumbents. Others are recommending eliminating traffic court altogether and transferring it to Municipal Court.

But in the spirit of the “U-Turn” column, I’m encouraging a complete, 180-degree turn and want us to completely eliminate voting for any judges.

This debate is not new. Au contraire, it’s old and tired. But that’s because we didn’t have support until just now to make the case. Today, most of us who want “good government” are in excruciating pain. We are embarrassed for Philadelphia. We are furious about those that got an unfair break on their tickets when we paid ours. We are continuing to lose faith in our government – whether it’s City Council, our Mayor, or our judges.

How can we even attempt to put honor, trust and integrity back into the courts? The answer is through merit selection.

No process is perfect, and merit selection certainly has its downfalls and its critics.

But allowing a small commission of qualified and respected peer attorneys to make the decision has been endorsed by former Gov. Ed Rendell, as well as “good government” reporters like Philly.com’s Holly Otterbein and WHYY’s Dave Davies - two journalists that have made careers of being consumer advocates. As Davies notes, “Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts has been pushing merit selection for years ... maybe in 2013?”

The Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts proposes “a hybrid system that combines the best features of appointive and elective systems and adds a new component - an independent, bipartisan citizens commission that screens and evaluates potential candidates for the bench.”

That sounds a lot better than a system that allows a huckster with no relevant qualifications, no experience and a bad temperament to get on the bench. The idea of judicial candidates continuing to “make commitments” to people to get themselves elected is, well, sickening. The last thing we need moving forward is a judge who is beholden to a major contributor or to a party boss.

In 2007, supporters of then-mayoral candidate Tom Knox, filed a legal challenge to Democratic City Committee Chairman Bob Brady’s mayoral nomination papers. When Knox found out that the case would be heard by a Luzerne County judge, Knox told a reporter, “Oh, good, that's so far away, he probably doesn't know them there.”

Brady eventually won the case.

Peer review during the merit selection process will help to establish a record of how a prospective judge has behaved and treated people in the past. It’s no guarantee that you won’t accidentally choose a stinker, but is probably the best method to get honest information out of the candidates.

Merit selection in 2013. Let’s see it happen.