State in the Interest of V.A., a Minor, A-9 September Term 2011; Supreme Court; opinion by LaVecchia, J.; dissent by Patterson, J.; decided September 12, 2102. On appeal from the Appellate Division, 420 N.J. Super. 302 (App. Div. 2011). [Sat below: Judges Payne, Baxter and Koblitz in the Appellate Division; Judge Daley in the Law Division.] DDS No. 14-1-7659 [51 pp.]

In this appeal, the court considers the standard governing judicial review of a prosecutor’s decision to waive certain juveniles into adult criminal court.

Under N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-26, the prosecutor may, in his discretion, file a motion to waive a juvenile charged with certain enumerated offenses into adult criminal court. In 2000, the Legislature amended the statute to eliminate the opportunity for juveniles aged 16 and over to present rehabilitation evidence to defeat waiver. Once the state has established probable cause that the juvenile committed an enumerated offense, waiver is required.

Although a prosecutor’s decision to seek waiver of such juveniles is discretionary, the Legislature directed the attorney general to issue guidelines for prosecutors to promote uniformity, thereby preventing arbitrary exercise of that discretionary authority. The attorney general promulgated “Juvenile Waiver Guidelines,” which provided that the prosecutor must weigh the following factors when determining whether to file a juvenile waiver motion: “Nature of the Offense,” “Deterrence,” “Effect on Co-Defendants,” “Maximum Sentence and Length of Time Served,” “Prior Record,” “Trial Considerations,” and “Victim’s Input.” A written statement of reasons containing an account of all factors considered and deemed applicable must be submitted with the motion for waiver.

Here, juveniles V.A., M.R. and C.T., all 16 years old or older, were charged with offenses enumerated in N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-26. The state filed waiver motions for the juveniles and submitted a statement of reasons for each juvenile.

The Family Court determined that probable cause existed for the enumerated offenses charged but concluded that the prosecutor’s decision to waive the juveniles constituted a patent and gross abuse of discretion and denied the state’s motions for waiver. The Appellate Division reversed, concluding that the Family Part overstepped its bounds. The panel remanded for the entry of orders waiving V.A., M.R. and C.T. to adult court. The court granted V.A., M.R. and C.T. leave to appeal.

Held: The abuse of discretion standard, rather than the patent and gross abuse of discretion standard, governs judicial review of a prosecutor’s decision to waive a juvenile aged 16 and over charged with an enumerated offense under N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-26 into adult criminal court.

The discretionary prosecutorial decision at issue here places the juvenile at risk of enhanced punishment. In a court’s review of waiver motions carrying serious consequences for the juvenile who is waived up to adult proceedings, the court finds the abuse of discretion standard applies. The abuse of discretion standard is appropriately deferential to the prosecutor’s decision to seek waiver when the statutory conditions are present. The abuse of discretion standard also acts to curb arbitrariness and the abuse of discretionary authority, thereby promoting the legislative interest in uniformity.

An abuse of discretion review does not allow the court to substitute its judgment for that of the prosecutor. Rather, a review for abuse of discretion involves a limited but substantive review to ensure that the prosecutor’s individualized decision about the juvenile before the court, as set forth in the statement of reasons, is not arbitrary or abusive of the discretion allowed to the prosecutor by statute. Cursory or conclusory statements as justification for waiver will not allow the court to perform its review under the abuse of discretion standard because such statements provide no meaningful explanation of the prosecutor’s reasoning. Applying that standard here, the prosecutor’s explanation in the statements of reasons was, in certain respects, lacking in detail. Therefore, the court reverses and remands for a more full explanation by the prosecutor.

Justice Patterson, dissenting, joined by Justice Hoens, expresses the view that the patent and gross abuse of discretion standard should govern judicial review of the waiver decision at issue.

Chief Justice Rabner and Justice Albin join in Justice LaVecchia‘s opinion. Justice Patterson filed a separate, dissenting opinion in which Justice Hoens joins. Judge Wefing, temporarily assigned, did not participate.

For appellants: C.T. — Lon C. Taylor, Assistant Deputy Public Defender (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender; Taylor and Joel A. Friedman, designated counsel, on the briefs); V.A. — Patrick C. O’Hara Jr., designated counsel (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender); M.R. — William M. Fetky, designated counsel (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender). For respondent New Jersey — Nancy A. Hulett, Assistant Prosecutor (Bruce J. Kaplan, Middlesex County Prosecutor, attorney). For amici curiae: American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation et al. — Laura A. Cohen (New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and Rutgers Urban Legal Clinic, Rutgers School of Law-Newark; Craig R. Levine of counsel; Cohen, Levine, Corey W. Parson, a member of the Calif. and N.Y. bars, and Marsha L. Levick, of the Pa. bar, on the brief); Attorney General of New Jersey — Jeanne Screen, Deputy Attorney General (Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General).