Legislation proposing reforms to the state’s municipal court system could be introduced as early as August. But there are already signs of resistance to a key element to the reform package: one that would change the way municipal judges are picked.
Sen. Declan O’Scanlon Jr., R-Monmouth, said Monday that he plans to introduce a series of bills that would codify elements of the municipal court reform blueprint unveiled July 17 by a Supreme Court committee.
O’Scanlon said he wants to see the imposition of justice separated from the collection of fines to fill towns’ coffers.
“We’ve seen publicly elected officials talk openly about the value of a judge that’s going to generate revenue. God knows, if they are talking about it openly, we know many are talking about it privately,” O’Scanlon said.
O’Scanlon said he’s “looking at” the report’s recommendation to create qualification committees to evaluate municipal judge candidates in each county, and “may very well” include the recommendation for such a change to the selection process in his package of legislation.
“Anything that improves the independence of our judiciary as a whole is a step in the right direction,” O’Scanlon said.
Sen. Nicholas Scutari said the report struck him as “highly critical” of the amount of fines imposed at the local level. He said the idea of a qualification committee could be helpful to municipal officials, though when it comes to potentially modifying local authority, ”The devil is in the details.”
The implementation of a judicial qualification committee was one proposal resulting from a wide-ranging study of the state’s municipal courts that was commissioned by the Supreme Court in response to a variety of concerns, including media reports suggesting that local governments rely heavily on revenue from fines imposed by municipal court judges. The study also was launched based on a letter sent to judges nationwide by the U.S. Department of Justice, expressing concerns about excessive fines in local courts. A 2017 report by the State Bar Association on judicial independence also was cited as an impetus for the examination of municipal courts.
Among the recommendations is a proposal to create qualification committees in each county for municipal judge candidates. Per the proposal, each candidate for a municipal court judgeship would be evaluated by the local vicinage’s presiding judge of municipal courts, a representative of the appointing municipality, two members of the county bar association with municipal court experience, and a nonattorney resident of the county. The report, recognizing that authority to pick a municipal judge resides at the local level, encourages municipalities to voluntarily submit judicial candidates’ names to the committee, but also suggests the Legislature could make such screening mandatory.
Early signs indicate the recommendation concerning vetting of judicial candidates has already stepped on some toes: It has come under heavy criticism from the New Jersey League of Municipalities.
“The logical conclusion is that the Committee does not trust local elected officials to make this decision, but they would trust ‘others,’” the organization said in a statement responding to the report on municipal courts.
“To follow the logic of the Committee, it is unclear to whom the new selectors will answer. Appointment of municipal judges by the State would eliminate the local perspective from an entire branch of government,” the League of Municipalities statement said.
The League’s assistant executive director, Michael Cerra, said in an email that “some towns may participate in a voluntary program and others most certainly will not,” and added, “even a first step in a voluntary program is also a first step to an inevitable effort to usurp appointments away from the appropriate authority.”
Yielding control of the preliminary portion of municipal judge selection raises no objections for Paul Anzano, the mayor of Hopewell Borough for 13 years and an attorney at Pringle Quinn Anzano in Trenton, as long as the town retains final say in the choice of candidates. However, some others might not agree, according to Anzano.
“I think there will be some pushback,” Anzano said of the proposal to revise the municipal judge selection process. The last time Hopewell had a vacancy on its bench, multiple candidates were interviewed, and the person selected had no prior contact with the town, he said.
“It wasn’t a patronage kind of thing. Do other places operate that way? I have no idea,” Anzano said.
Screening of judicial candidates on the Superior Court level is “a big part of why New Jersey’s judicial system is as respected as it is,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. Still, he thinks some local officials would object to extending the concept to municipal court candidates.
Sometimes municipal judge, prosecutor and solicitor jobs are offered based on who helped most with the mayor’s campaign, Rasmussen said.
“That’s a cynical way of looking at it, but that’s absolutely the way I’ve seen it work in some towns,” he said. “If that’s the way a town operates, that’s the beginning and the end of their consideration, and you’re throwing a monkey wrench in that, adding an additional level of decision-making” with a committee, Rasmussen said.
Any town considering a candidate who is qualified has “nothing to fear” from submitting that person to a vetting committee, Rasmussen said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t appoint someone who’s loyal,” he said.
Administrative Office of the Courts spokeswoman MaryAnn Spoto, responding to the League of Municipalities’ criticism of the report, said that the group was represented on the committee that wrote the report and would be included on any future committees relating to the issue. She added that the report makes clear that towns would have a say in the vetting process.