From vacancies on the federal District Court to a reduction in bench warrants for minor offenses in the state’s municipal courts, the top jurists of New Jersey’s state and federal courts gave an overview of the some of the challenges and progress made over the past year at the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Annual Meeting and Convention in Atlantic City.
U.S. DISTRICT COURT OF NEW JERSEY
Former Chief Justice Jose L. Linares, U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, who had relinquished his position at midnight, on Friday described the court as “the best” in the country, yet said it faces numerous challenges, including six vacancies in a court that is supposed to have 17 active judges.
The administrative judge has recommended the number of judges on the court be increased to 20.
The vacancies put pressure on an already overburdened court, Linares said. With 24,000 civil actions filed in district court in the last 12 months, New Jersey led the country. Despite being shorthanded, the court was able to terminate 13,000 of 16,123 civil case motions.
Linares noted that pharmaceutical litigation has increased in New Jersey, home to a large number of pharmaceutical companies. The federal courts in New Jersey and Delaware handle 90 percent of litigation between branded versus generic drugs. Under the Hatch-Waxman Act, those cases must be resolved within 30 months of being filed, which puts further pressure on the court, Linares said.
Criminal cases are up and more than 15,000 multi-district cases were filed last year, of which the court was able to terminate about 2,500.
“It is indeed a very taxing proposition for the court,” Linares said.
Linares said the vacancies coupled with the number and type of cases, prompted the federal judiciary to say New Jersey is in a “judicial crisis.”
While the vacancies cause delays in case resolutions, Linares said, “It is not a judge problem. The judges work as hard as they can with the cases they have before them. It’s really a client problem and it is a problem for you as a lawyer when your client calls and says, ‘Why is my case taking so long?’”
Linares urged members of the bar to urge politicians, from the White House to the senate, to fill the vacancies.
Linares described the government shutdown, the longest in history, as a trying time for the court, which has nearly 400 employees. The court came up with contingency plans and managed to avoid layoffs and furloughs.
“The morale and the work ethic of the people who work there remain at the steady high level it’s always been,” he said.
Despite the challenges, Linares said the court had made strides and instituted some new initiatives. It received more money to hire two additional magistrate judges. Linares also lauded the court for becoming more diverse over the last few years.
“The court continues to change its face,” he said.
When Linares started practicing law, he said, “the federal court was a scary place.” It was not “lawyer-friendly,” nor did anyone look or sound like him.
Linares said the court has become more attuned to the community over the years and been at the forefront of programs, such as those that help inmates re-enter society or offenders avoid prison, and holding symposia on sentencing changes and the opioid and drug addiction epidemic.
MUNICPAL COURT REFORM IN NEW JERSEY
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, of the New Jersey Supreme Court,
focused on a number of developments and reforms in New Jersey’s municipal court system, which has more than 500 municipal courts that handle 6 million cases a year.
“The municipal courts are the face of justice to the public,” Rabner said.
“Countless people form an opinion from those interactions and they have every right to expect the same standard of excellence and integrity of independence and fairness that the court system must deliver at all levels,” he said.
Rabner called New Jersey’s municipal court system “among the finest in the nation” that has made strides over the years, but “there is more to be done.”
He noted the municipal court system’s “unique partnership” between local government and the state Judiciary.
The system “creates a level of tension between the core principle that a system of justice must decide a case on the merits alone consistent with the rule of law--- and the perception that municipal courts in New Jersey and elsewhere are used to generate revenue from municipalities,” Rabner said.
“Regrettably, that perception has been fueled by practices that have been subject to discussion throughout our nation, not simply in Ferguson, Mo., but to some extent in our own towns as well.”
Two years ago, the Supreme Court formed a committee on municipal court operations, fines and fees, with an eye toward reform. The committee issued a report with nearly 50 recommendations. A working group on the municipal courts was established in 2018 and expects to issue a report shortly.
“One overarching concern is to separate a town’s need for general operating revenue from the operation of the municipal courts,” Rabner said.
For example, the system can inappropriately place pressure on police officers to write tickets and judges to impose fines and fees, he said.
“Law enforcement takes an oath to enforce the law fairly. And the courts must always serve as a fair and neutral forum for resolving disputes. There is no place for either organization to be a party to raise funds for local government. That has not always been the case,” he said.
In 2015, contempt fines were issued in more than 125,000 cases and raised $8.4 million. Three years later, the number of citations and revenue they generated were lowered more than 60 percent, to 55,000 cases and $3.1 million, “after a light was shone on the problem,” Rabner said.
The AOC trained municipal judges on the legal use of contempt of court citations and Rabner sent a letter to all judges to significantly curtail the excessive use of contempt citations.
Rabner noted related problems:
- Fines for speeding tickets for driving 65 mph in a 55-mph zone that increase from $95 if paid online to $389 if challenged in court because of eight different surcharges.
- Fines for possession of small amounts of marijuana can increase from $100 to $1,008 because of fees and surcharges.
In response, the state Supreme Court made some changes. In September, it issued a cap on the maximum penalty that municipal judges could assess for failure to appear in court and failure to pay.
Rabner said most of the surcharges are driven by statute, which requires action by the legislature and executive branch.
“That’s why it’s so appropriate that members of both branches are part of the working group,” he said.
The fines and surcharges often fall on people who can’t pay the full amount up front, “which can create a seemingly never-ending cycle of debt and involvement with the court system that overwhelms defendants of modest means and has a disproportionate effect on the poor,” Rabner said.
Procedural protections have been instituted for people who fail to pay a fine so those who cannot pay can’t be sent to jail. In 2017, defendants were offered the ability to pay in installments or given sentencing alternatives.
The Judiciary has taken a number of steps to curtail the excessive use of bench warrants and its impact on indigent defendants. The AOC extended training to municipal court judges to consider limits on the use of those tools. Assignment judges were warned to limit bench warrants for failure to appear to the most serious matters and to require a hearing within 48 hours or the immediate release of the defendant’s arrest on a bench warrant.
“The results are notable,” Rabner said.
In 2015, municipal court judges issued nearly 600,000 bench warrants. In 2018, the number was reduced by one-third to 395,000.
“Judges still have the authority issue warrants when that makes sense, when it serves the interest of justice,” Rabner said.
“All in all, the results reflect a positive trend in our system of justice.”
Rabner provided an overview of several proposals under consideration, including consolidating the municipal courts. While some of the state’s 565 municipalities share services and courts, the majority, 515, have standalone municipal courts. Of those, 105 had fewer than 1,000 filings in 2017 and nearly 45 percent had fewer than 3,000 filings.
“There are more efficient ways to operate the municipal court system and deliver justice and achieve cost savings,” Rabner said.
“New Jersey’s municipal court system is strong. It’s guided by strong leaders and able judges whose mission is to administer justice,” he said.
By working together, the quality of service improves and instills public confidence in our system of law and justice, he said.