City traffic court is an embarrassment

What will it take to clean up Philadelphia Traffic Court? The recent arrest of a judge on charges that he misused public funds marked the fourth time in less than two years that the court has been embarrassed.

Wearing baggy shorts and a golf shirt, Traffic Court Judge Robert Mulgrew pleaded not guilty last week to inappropriately spending funds intended to care for South Philadelphia’s Dickinson Park. At least Mulgrew was wearing clothes.

Robert Mulgrew

Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary allegedly showed a coworker photographs of his genitals. Singletary resigned in March, just as the Judicial Conduct Board filed formal charges against him.

Readers might remember Singletary’s 2007 run for office, in which the candidate was caught on video suggesting that campaign contributors would get favorable treatment if he was elected. At the time, Singletary also had $11,500 in unpaid traffic tickets, which he has since paid off.

Judge Christine Solomon flunked the traffic-judge test in December, but passed it on her second try.

The Supreme Court relieved Judge Michael Sullivan of his administrative duties last December in an ongoing ticket-fixing investigation.

Retired Judge Bernice DeAngelis, a former Democratic ward leader who had been serving as a senior judge, left in April after the administrative judge said her services would no longer be needed.

Laudably, the state Supreme Court, which oversees Traffic Court, moved quickly to suspend Mulgrew without pay.

This latest disgrace argues strongly for reforming the patronage-laden court. It is an anachronism that is a burden on the tens of thousands of traffic-court defendants who pass through the doors at 800 Spring Garden Street not knowing whether they will get a fair hearing.

Traffic Court judges don’t even have to be lawyers to collect an $89,000 paycheck. They aren’t required to have any legal training to evaluate the law and make cogent decisions. The Democratic Party controls elections for Traffic Court judge, so the paramount quality needed to keep that job is fealty to the party, rather than responsibility to the public.

Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille took a much-needed step last December when he appointed Common Pleas Court Judge Gary Glazer to oversee Traffic Court. Glazer is known for his professionalism. And his past experience as a federal prosecutor could be useful, given recent allegations.

More needs to be done. The Supreme Court should consider a permanent overseer who isn’t bound by local politics. That person should have the Judicial Conduct Board on speed dial, so misbehaving judges can be swiftly punished for disgraceful actions.