Meet indie media activist-turned-Traffic Court candidate Inja Coates
West Philly resident Inja Coates wants to be a traffic court judge. And so do a lot of people. Twenty-seven candidates in all (25 Democrats, of which Coates is one; two Republicans) for three vacant positions.
The difference is, she says, is that she’s coming at the office from an outsider community activist and media organizer perspective and, perhaps most important due to recent events, is willing to face the correct criticism of that entity head-on. I spoke to her last week regarding her run for judgeship and the upcoming May 21 primary.
Some background on that aforementioned traffic court criticism: Nine current- and former-Philadelphia Traffic Court judges and judges from other counties were recently indicted on “ticket fixing” recently and several have already pleaded guilty. Remember Willie Singletary, the traffic court judge who texted his penis to people? Yeah, that’s something that happened.
In light of these and other issues, Pennsylvania lawmakers have actually proposed eliminating the court all together or merging the traffic court into the municipal court, effectively eliminating the three vacant positions — something supported by the Committee of Seventy.
Anyway, Coates, whose tagline says she is “unbought” and “unbeholden,” told me she wants to change the culture on the court and would be willing to support several options and scenarios to make sure things actually do change. Here’s my interview with Inja Coates:
Why do you want to be a traffic court judge?
As you know, the courts have been in a troubled situation lately with a lot of corruption and there’s a lot of opportunity now to get a good community-based person with integrity to try to clean things up.
So, you’re that community-based person?
Yes, I’ve been involved in social justice activism and nonprofit leadership in the city for longer than I’d care to admit actually.
What kinds of projects have you done?
I did some work with actual arts and culture groups, I worked with the Village of Arts and Humanities, the Asian Arts Initiative and then got really interested in independent media and community media, so I was one of the main people spearheading the coalition for public access television. That was an ongoing campaign for many years. We finally won that and we now have a brand new, beautiful studio at 7th and Ranstead; PhillyCAM. I was on the startup board of that and served as a board member until now. I had to step off to be able to run for office.
But I’ve been involved in that since 1997 and from that, actually, I co-founded and led the Independent Media Center of Philadelphia that was set up around the Republican convention in 2000 and then ran a group called Media Tank that was focused on media literacy education and policy, like ownership, free speech, all that stuff… because communities need to have the right to self-define and self-express and tell their own stories. They need to work with labor and churches and youth groups and every kind of cross-section of groups in the city because those groups aren’t getting the kind of coverage and voice in the media they need to be able to advance their cause.
So, you’re background is in a lot of media. But what will change if you’re on traffic court?
It’s a different venue, obviously. But I do see it as a continuation of my public interest work and another way to support communities and, really, what initially got me was an opportunity to use it as a vehicle to build the progressive movement in Philadelphia.
Do you think anything will be changed specifically in that regard if you’re on the court? Would you move to change certain requirements of candidates or something? I mean, there’s a movement and bills in the Pennsylvania Legislature to actually do away with the whole thing.
Right. So, that’s a big question. There are several things. One is, I don’t know what authority I, as a single judge, would have to overhaul the rules, but I would definitely be in favor of instituting some minimal professional requirements that you would expect in any job. I mean, right now, the requirements are surprisingly low. And, possibly, even having some kind of qualifying process [Note: The qualifying process for traffic court judges is currently living in one's district for one year.] Like, I know you have to take a course and take an exam before you’re allowed to serve. Actually, the last judge that was just suspended, they had said she was delayed in her service because she had failed the test the first time. What if you had to pass a test before you became a candidate? I don’t know. I think there are issues within the court that have begun to be addressed by the judge who was appointed to be a supervisor now. Judge Glazer has instituted more ethical training and moved to a merit-based hiring system. I think those are steps that have begun to work and those types of measures will continue to help.
I’d want to work with those efforts and propose my own ideas as well. I think that we can’t look at traffic court in isolation. We have to look at our election process and look at how our judges are elected in the grand scheme of things because there were judges who were indicted for this two-track system and doing political favors for people. Then, you also have to look at the people they’re doing the favors for. Who are the people making the requests?
I think what separates me is, I’m not part of the political class that was implicated in all that. I come from this community base and that’s where I feel accountable.
Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso