Judge Mary Jacobson. Photo: Carmen Natale/ALM

A judge is hearing grumbles after taking more than 500 days to rule on dispositive motions in a suit challenging New Jersey’s suspension of driver’s licenses for parents in arrears on child support payments.

The failure to rule on a motion after such a lengthy period could be deemed a de facto dismissal of the suit, which would then be subject to appellate review, plaintiffs’ lawyer David Perry Davis said in a Jan. 6 letter to Mercer County Assignment Judge Mary Jacobson. Davis said he would ask the Appellate Division to make such a finding if Jacobson does not name a date when a decision will be issued.

Jacobson held a hearing on cross-motions to dismiss the case of Kavadas v. Martinez on August 23, 2016.

Since that hearing, Davis estimates, based on earlier data, that the state has issued 24,500 automatic driver’s license suspensions, of which 500 were entered erroneously because the arrears was paid, the wrong person was named, or other reasons.

Case law supports an application to the Appellate Division where no decision is issued for such a long period, said Davis, who called the delay unreasonable and said no material questions of fact stand in the way of a ruling.

“I appreciate the court’s workload and the time this matter requires. However, if the court cannot provide counsel with a date by which a decision will be rendered, plaintiffs are left with no recourse but to seek review of the court’s de facto denial,” Davis said in the letter to Jacobson.

Davis said in an interview that case law does not say what amount of time should be considered unreasonable for parties to wait on a ruling, but he said that the irreparable harm caused by the delays in the present case should be a factor.

Davis said the judge told him in September 2017 that a ruling was imminent. He wrote her another letter on Nov. 15, 2017, about the status of the ruling and she did not reply.

The suit claims the state’s practice of suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment of child support without conducting a hearing is unconstitutional and contrary to the legislature’s intent.

Named as defendants in the suit are the Motor Vehicle Commission and Raymond Martinez, its chief administrator; the state of New Jersey; John Hoffman, who was acting attorney general at the time the suit was filed; and Natasha Johnson, director of the Office of Child Support Services in the state Department of Human Services.

The suit does not seek to halt the suspension of driver’s licenses to force parties to pay child support, but instead attempts to limit the practice. Davis said the suspension of a driver’s license in such cases is “self-defeating” because it may prevent a parent from going to work, applying for jobs or seeing his or her children.

The program stems from a 1996 federal law requiring states to toughen their child support procedures in order to qualify for certain types of federal aid. The Motor Vehicle Commission has asserted that it is merely following the law as written.

Davis’ motion seeks a ruling finding that the state Motor Vehicle Commission violates a statutory requirement that it conduct a hearing upon receiving an order for suspension of a driver’s license. The defendants’ cross-motion concedes that it is not complying with the statute, he said in court papers.

But the state Supreme Court held in a 2006 case, Pasqua v. Council, that suspension of a driver’s license is a “consequence of magnitude,” mandating a hearing and appointment of counsel for an indigent party. In that case, the court held that an indigent person may not be incarcerated to coerce payment of child support arrears without holding a hearing to determine if the person has the ability to pay the support and has willfully refused to do so. Davis represented the plaintiff in Pasqua.

Jacobson did not respond to a request for comment. The attorney general’s office, which represents the defendants, declined to comment on the case.