Capitol Report

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October 7, 2019

NJSBA supports recommendations to improve judicial independence and fairness in municipal courts

With few exceptions, the New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA) submitted comments last week in support of the Supreme Court’s recommendations from the Working Group on Municipal Courts. The NJSBA lauded the committee for its recommendations, many of which were consistent with those contained in an NJSBA report released in 2017 that included testimony from public hearings held throughout the state.

The working group recommendations focused on three areas: decoupling sentencing practices from a municipality’s need for revenue in order to enhance equal judicial independence; modifying the appointment and reappointment process for municipal court judges to enhance judicial independence; and consolidating and regionalizing municipal courts to improve the efficiency of court operations and the delivery of justice.

The NJSBA generally supported the recommendations, with four exceptions:

   With regard to a recommendation that license suspensions for failure to pay cases be ordered as a last resort and only after an ability to pay hearing is held and the individual be represented by counsel, the NJSBA urged a clarification that appointed counsel, where necessary, be assigned through the municipal public defender and not the Madden list.

   The working group recommended a county JPAC review of municipal court judges to review potential candidates and report back to the municipal governing body. The municipal governing body would retain discretion to appoint or not appoint the candidate. The NJSBA endorses the concept of this recommendation, to be conducted by a group independent of the municipal governing body. It underscored a formalized, uniform vetting process that employs “a careful balancing of all interests involved.”

   With regard to a recommendation to establish a municipal court judge evaluation process that includes a review of the sentences imposed by the judge being evaluated, the NJSBA raised concerns to ensure that there are appropriate safeguards in place so the review is not done in a vacuum.

   A recommendation to permit municipal court presiding judges to be designated as full time at the discretion of the chief justice was met with a concern that there be “more definitive details about how individuals would be appointed” and the terms and expectations of those positions.

The NJSBA offered to collaborate with the Court on their efforts to overhaul the municipal courts.

Workers’ compensation courts demand increased security, says NJSBA

The NJSBA urged the commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development, Robert Asaro-Angelo, to address security issues within the state’s 15 workers’ compensation courts in a letter outlining its concerns last week. Pointing out that security varies from venue to venue, the NJSBA raised issues about the lack of metal detectors or other resources to adequately screen individuals entering the courts.

“The courts can be an emotionally charged experience for an injured worker,” said NJSBA President Evelyn Padin in the letter. Citing to a recent incident in the Hackensack compensation court, where an injured worker threatened to kill various persons, including a workers’ compensation judge, the NJSBA pointed out that this was one of the locations that does not have additional security,

“The NJSBA is concerned for the safety of the judges, the staff, the lawyers and the general public who appear in the workers’ compensation courts,” said Padin. “We respectfully request that the Department of Labor and Workforce Development address these serious safety concerns uniformly throughout the state, in order to avoid a potential tragedy.”

This is a status report provided by the New Jersey State Bar Association on recently passed and pending legislation, regulations, gubernatorial nominations and/or appointments of interest to lawyers, as well as the involvement of the NJSBA as amicus in appellate court matters.