During this past year, municipal court operations have been the subject of intense scrutiny in the media. In November, 2016, reports in the Asbury Park Press referred to “The Municipal Court Cash Machine” and argued that municipalities have ‘too much control’ over local courts. A December Star-Ledger editorial questioned the use of license suspensions to enforce compliance with court orders. Then, earlier this year, both the State Supreme Court and the Bar Association established formal study groups to review municipal court operations, fines, and fees.
Over the years, a number of bills have been introduced to change the way municipal courts are staffed and organized. A bill in the current session, A-4418, would give Freeholder Boards the power to seize jurisdiction from municipal courts. Under the provisions of this bill, locally elected and locally responsive governing bodies in the county would have no real choice, but to rubber stamp a county decision to create “county-municipal courts,” with unlimited, countywide jurisdiction.
According to this bill, after action by the Freeholders, each municipality within a county that establishes a county-municipal court would have to agree, within two years, to have violations heard in the new court. A municipality that agrees to the county’s, would not be responsible for any administrative costs associated with the operation and maintenance of the new court. However, if a municipality failed to agree within the two-year period to have violations heard by the new court, the Assignment Judge of the vicinage for the county would order that any violations occurring in the non-compliant municipality be heard in the new court, and the municipality would be responsible for all administrative costs specified in the judge’s order until such time as it agreed to have violations heard by that court. The League strenuously opposes this legislation.
Looking forward to a new Administration and a new Legislature next January, we have no way of knowing what the Supreme Court and Bar Association groups may recommend. It is possible that they could look to take appointment powers away from the local governing body, to give tenure to local judges, or attempt to force consolidation of court operations at another level of government.
Local governments already have a number of options, if they see the need to share this valuable service with their neighbors. They should have that discretion. They should not be forced to cede local control.
We appreciate the dedicated public service of our municipal court professionals. Municipal judges, prosecutors, public defenders and court administrators take their offices seriously and exercise their duties ethically and responsibly. All undergo training before taking office. All work under the jurisdiction of the Administrative Office of the Courts. And, in the case of the court administrators, they are certified and compliant with continuing education requirements. No change in appointment power could improve their performance.
While we share legitimate concerns about the disparate impact that court fines and penalties can have on those least able to pay; we also recognize the need for fines and penalties to represent a real deterrent to behavior that demonstrates a lack of consideration for the safety and welfare of all the members of the community.
Please keep these facts and these challenges in mind, when you speak with your State Legislators.
Contact: Jon Moran, Senior Legislative Analyst, firstname.lastname@example.org, 609-695-3481, x121.