Judge ruled on traffic citations before hearing date to cover for planned absence, ethics complaint alleges

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A municipal judge in Philadelphia is accused of trying to cover for her upcoming absence by ruling on traffic citations before the scheduled hearing date, marking some ticketed people as “guilty in absentia.”

Judge Marissa J. Brumbach of the Philadelphia Municipal Court traveled to Florida, even though the presiding municipal court judge did not approve her request to take a day off for the trip Jan. 7, according to a Dec. 14 ethics complaint attached to a Dec. 19 press release by the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board.

The Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline has scheduled a Jan. 4, 2023, hearing to consider a petition seeking the judge’s interim suspension without pay, according to a Dec. 20 order.

According to the ethics complaint, Brumbach was scheduled to hear 95 traffic citations Jan. 7. She obtained the files in advance, asked the prosecutor to determine whether he was recommending the withdrawal of any citations, and then marked the citations.

Twenty-eight were marked as “guilty in absentia,” 30 were marked as “not guilty in absentia,” 17 were marked as “withdrawn” (apparently consistent with the prosecutor’s recommendation), and 20 were adjudicated but “scribbled on in a manner indicating that the adjudication had been vacated,” according to the complaint.

Brumbach had planned to call her staff Jan. 7 following court sessions and to instruct them to docket and record the adjudications that she had already placed on the citations, according to the complaint. She planned to ask her staff to reschedule adjudications if the defendant showed up for a hearing or requested a continuance.

Brumbach had sent an email to the presiding judge Jan. 6 that read: “Since I have not heard from you regarding coverage and I am aware you are experiencing coverage issues across the municipal court with other judges, I have prepared the files for tomorrow after the assistant district attorney reviewed them. As such, at least 95% of the files will have been completed by me without the necessity of coverage. If court remains open tomorrow with the impending snow forecast and anyone shows up, my staff and the court staff know what to do.”

The presiding judge seized the files Jan. 6 and did not allow the adjudications to be entered into the record.

That same day, Brumbach told the presiding judge that she had marked the traffic citations with what she thought the outcome should be, but she did not adjudicate them in advance. But Brumbach’s markings on the citations were identical to the way that citations are marked following “a properly conducted hearing on the day the hearing is actually scheduled,” the ethics complaint said.

The court was closed Jan. 7 because of a snow emergency.

Brumbach has been assigned to administrative duties since Jan. 10. The ethics complaint alleges that Brumbach engaged in conduct that prejudices the proper administration of justice in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Other ethics counts include failing to comply with the law, failing to act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary, failing to give precedence to the duties of judicial office, failing to perform her duties competently and diligently, and failing to give defendants a right to be heard.

Brumbach did not immediately respond to the ABA Journal’s phone message left with her office. She is represented by Matthew H. Haverstick, who didn’t immediately respond to a voicemail and email seeking comment.

Haverstick told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Brumbach didn’t improperly adjudicate cases, and “everything she did was run by supervisory judges beforehand.”

Haverstick said Brumbach is an honorable judge, “and I don’t think she’s done anything wrong.”

Brumbach became a judge at the beginning of 2018. She was licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania in 1996.

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