The New Jersey State Bar Association’s Task Force on Judicial Independence released a report outlining steps to be taken to ensure a fair and impartial court system.
The 50-page report (PDF) is the result of a year-and-a-half of study, and its authors said they hope it will foster continued discussion on the critical issues facing the legal community and society.
“The Task Force hopes this report can serve, in some small way, to help the people of New Jersey understand and appreciate the vital role an independent Judiciary has in New Jersey in protecting the rights of all who reside here. The Task Force trusts this report will serve as a spark for further discussion and consideration of the many critical issues that confront our state and its people,” the report states.
The Task Force was formed in 2013 by Ralph J. Lamparello, then president of the 18,000-member association, and continued under the tenure of Paris P. Eliades, current president of the association. The 14-member group was comprised of retired judges, scholars, attorneys and members of the public. Retired Appellate Division Judge Dorothea O’C. Wefing, who was temporarily assigned to the Supreme Court, and retired Assignment Judge Maurice J. Gallipoli, who sat in Hudson County, served as its co-chairs. The task force was an independent entity.
The report outlines several issues, including: methods of judicial selection and reappointment; senatorial courtesy; salary and pension issues; and public education, and provides an overview of how the modern courts in New Jersey came to be.
The report included 11 recommendations for the New Jersey State Bar Association’s governing body to consider. They suggest the state bar:
• Continue to work with governors to sign and abide by the Hughes Compact, which allows the association to provide a non-partisan review of judicial and prosecutorial candidates, and urge governors to use highly regarded attorneys and the public to review judicial candidates.
• Not advocate or endorse a proposal to change the judicial selection method currently used in New Jersey, and remain a strong advocate for the reappointment of judges who have served their initial term of appointment with “integrity, competence, diligence and appropriate temperament.”
• Reconsider a prior endorsement of a proposed constitutional amendment regarding the reappointment of judicial candidates
• Advocate for legislation that would direct mandatory meetings of the state Salary Commission and provisions that protect judicial independence in future legislation that addresses pension and health benefits for state employees.
• Strongly oppose any suggestion to institute judicial elections and remain vigilant against the use of senatorial courtesy.
• Create new task forces to consider issues of judicial independence that are unique to municipal courts and to address ways to ensure all residents receive or have available a strong grounding in civics and the fundamentals of government.
NJSBA officials said they are committed to preserving a co-equal judicial branch and would present the report to the organization’s governing body for review and adoption. They noted that several of the recommendations are continuations of the association’s current and historic practices.
“There is no issue more important to the legal community, and general society, than being able to trust in the courts to resolve disputes in accordance with the facts and the law of the land in a way that is not motivated by personal or political concerns,” said Lamparello and Eliades in a joint statement. “This organization is now and will always be committed to serving as the protectors of our Judiciary.”
Without making a pronouncement about the current events surrounding judicial appointments and reappointments, the report notes the thorny issues that must be taken into account.
“Tensions between branches of government are inherent and ever present in our tri-partite system, as each branch strives to fulfill what it perceives to be its fundamental obligations to the public. At times, these tensions rise to the surface and boil over. They are not pleasant to be a party to or to witness, as they often cause much concern, comment, criticism and even harm,” the report states. “However, the resolution of these tensions usually takes place over time and by appropriate accommodations to the obligations of others, and is an essential, but sometimes contentious part of our democratic system of government. Ultimately, successful resolution, successful government, and yes, even judicial independence, rest, at bottom, on the integrity and good will of all participants and the people at large, no matter what judicial selection techniques are or may be constitutionally mandated.”