Feel like NJ courts are just money-makers? Here are the ideas to change that
There’s a growing sentiment to do something about tamping down use of municipal courts to generate fines to support a city or town’s budget.
Committees of the New Jersey State Bar Association and the state Supreme Court are each looking at the issue now, and a state Assembly committee recently did the same. Lawmakers floated ideas such as regionalization, making municipal courts a division of Superior Court and pooling all revenues from fines.
Paul Catanese, who was a judge for 20 years in South Brunswick, Lawrence and Hamilton, said judges need to be freed up to be independent, not worrying about whether they’ll be reappointed if they levy small or no fines in cases when that’s appropriate.
“There’s always this if not explicit this implicit sense that you need more revenues from the court,” said Catanese, who said a few years ago one Middlesex County town switched judges specifically because it wanted more revenue from court fines.
“Judges know what their job is,” Catanese said. “It’s to do individual justice in individual cases. That’s what our role is. It’s not our job to raise revenues for the town.”
Esther Canty-Barnes, a former municipal judge in Irvington, said the pressure is sometimes direct.
“The backlog cases – pull the backlogs, issue bench warrants, recall the cases again, bring in the payment agreements. Things of that nature, which you really had to ignore from them because that’s not the way that justice is supposed to be meted out,” she said.
Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, said courts are supposed to be about justice, not judges feeling pressure to produce revenue. In municipal courts, only 2 percent of cases are tried, and of those only 16 percent lead to charges being dismissed, he said.
“If you look at the statistics, you frankly have a better chance of beating a murder rap than you do a parking ticket,” said McKeon.
Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris, suggested that municipal courts could become part of the Superior Court, with state-appointed judges moving in a circuit around a county to hear cases.
“We had one judge actually in Morris County, who is thankfully no longer a judge, brag when he was looking for jobs that he always brought in the most revenue,” said Carroll, who said an arms-length relationship between a town and local courts “gets rid of the incentive to write rinky-dink tickets.”
“Having a mall or a state highway in your municipality is a wonderful thing in terms of revenue because if you’re short, you stick the cops out on Route 80 to write the tickets, or there’s the shoplifters down at the Rockaway Mall or what have you,” Carroll said. “It’s good for business, judicial business. I’m not so sure it’s good for justice business.”
Assemblyman Joseph Lagana, D-Bergen, said one possibility is a regional court – though he said that would be difficult to get approved.
“Because New Jersey is a very special place, and home rule is king. That’s the problem. And that’s why there is always going to be pushback against regionalization. Regionalization makes the most sense. That will prevent the local officials from sticking their nose into how the courts. I think it will help towns save money,” Lagana said.
“I strongly believe regionalization is the answer. But getting there, I think that road is really windy,” Lagana said.
It would be difficult to enact changes, agreed Daniel Phillips, legislative liaison for the Administrative Office of the Courts. But it is possible, he said, noting the creation of the Superior Court, rather than separate county courts, approved a quarter-century ago.
“There have been many of these proposals in the past, and they become – it’s political. Mayors make calls. There’s a lot of money involved here,” Phillips said.
Jon Moran, senior legislative analyst for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said only people caught violating a law or ordinance pay a municipal court fine and that efforts to deter such activity can be appropriate.
"Municipal court fines represent a small part of the total revenue stream," said Moran, who said towns have been shorted $320 million in property tax relief by the state and dealing with a 2 percent cap on property tax increases, which in some instances may have made court revenues a larger share of local revenues than in the past.
Assemblyman Erik Peterson, R-Hunterdon, said he thought municipalities in his district would “love to jettison” their local municipal courts. He said it should be an option for local officials to decide to make it a county function.
“The courts are a financial burden on us. We don’t bring in enough revenue. It’s actually a loss to the towns,” Peterson said. “… That whole municipal court is just something they’d rather not have to deal with.”
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