Hughes Justice Complex, Trenton, New Jersey. Hughes Justice Complex, Trenton, New Jersey

A committee assembled by the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued a blueprint for reforming the state’s vast system of municipal courts, with an emphasis on reducing excessive fines imposed on litigants, improving the process for selecting and retaining municipal court judges, and paying closer attention to judicial independence.

The report, issued Tuesday, includes 49 recommendations aimed at addressing criticism the courts have received concerning procedures for enforcement of fines and fees, as well as a public perception that municipalities are increasingly relying on fines from tickets as a source of significant revenue.

The report also calls for a reduction in the number of municipal courts, with low-volume courts merging or sharing services; seeks alternatives to driver’s license suspension and more fairness when licenses are suspended; and criticizes what it calls the proliferation of legislatively imposed surcharges that drive up the cost of a traffic ticket for the benefit of causes such as autism research and bulletproof vests for police officers.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner launched the Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines, and Fees in March 2017, with Assignment Judge Julio Mendez of Atlantic and Cape May counties as its chairman.

The committee’s 28 members consist of judges, court staff and attorneys practicing in municipal court. The endeavor was launched, in part, in response to a “dear colleague” letter issued by the U.S. Department of Justice to judges and court administrators, asking them to beware of imposing stiff fines and fees on poor defendants. The Justice Department issued that letter after federal officials investigated the Ferguson, Missouri, police and courts in the wake of that city’s 2015 riots.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that letter as unnecessary and overreaching late last year, though the committee already had been spurred into action.

The committee said the need for reform also was made apparent by articles in the Asbury Park Press that it said “articulate a public perception that municipalities are increasingly relying on fines from tickets as a source of significant revenue, calling into question the overall fairness of such practices.”

A 2017 report by the State Bar Association on judicial independence also was an impetus for the judiciary’s examination of municipal courts, Rabner said.

The chief justice gave a preview of his concerns about municipal courts in April, when he sent a letter reminding the state’s municipal judges to be mindful of the due process and equal protection rights of defendants. That letter made reference to Dennis McInerney, a municipal judge in Burlington Township who faces a civil rights suit by a man who was jailed when he could not pay a $239 littering fine.

The Supreme Court committee identified three “significant concerns” about the operation of municipal courts: the excessive imposition of financial obligations on certain defendants, excessive use of bench warrants and license suspensions as collection mechanisms, and excessive use of discretionary contempt assessments.

Of the 49 policy recommendations: 18 pertain to heavy fines and costs on litigants; five focus on ensuring litigants’ compliance with court-ordered appearances and legal financial obligations; 10 are about ensuring judicial independence; two concern evaluations of sitting municipal judges; 12 are about technology; one concerns diversity among judges; and one is about establishment of the working group.

Recommendations concerning fines include developing a policy “to monitor the imposition of contempt of court financial assessments by Municipal Court judges to avoid the inappropriate use of contempt of court, to require compliance with court rules, and to require justification on the record and a separate court order,” and a policy to establish “guidelines that Municipal Court judges are to follow when the corresponding statute or ordinance provides for a range of possible financial penalties, and requiring a Municipal Court judge to state on the record his or her reasons for ordering that amount.” Another recommendation calls for development of “a Judiciary policy providing Municipal Court judges guidelines for consideration of all available sentencing alternatives both at time of sentencing and as part of post-sentencing enforcement.”

Other recommendations call for development of policies and tools to assist municipal courts in establishing payment plans and in making ability-to-pay determinations.

To foster judicial independence, the committee’s recommendations include a legislative mandate to consolidate smaller courts. The committee found that of the state’s 515 municipal courts, 225 had fewer than 3,000 filings in the 2017 court year, 166 had fewer than 2,000 filings, and 105 had fewer than 1,000 filings.

No specific proposals were offered, however, about which courts might be subject to consolidation.

The report says “consolidated and streamlined courts not only enhance efficiencies, but can also protect the independence of the municipal courts.”

The committee also offered a series of recommendations for establishment of a process for qualifying municipal judges. Participation in that process by municipalities would have to be voluntary, since the municipality has the final authority to make appointments, but the committee also suggested that the Legislature make the review process mandatory and uniform. In such a system, each vicinage would establish a qualifications committee, made up of the presiding municipal judge, a representative from the appointing municipalities, two county bar association representatives, and a nonattorney citizen, according to the committee.

New Jersey State Bar Association President John Keefe Jr. applauded the court’s recommendations.

“These proposals are very good news for the people of New Jersey, as well as the profession,” he said in a statement. “Recommendations to have a more transparent and less financially driven municipal court system will make a substantial difference in improving the independence of the state’s municipal courts.”

Keefe added, “In particular, establishing a uniform and transparent judicial appointment process will elevate the experience of the public, who can come to court to have their case resolved knowing local politics and financial pressures are not driving the judicial process.”