The Gannett publishing company is the largest in America by circulation -- reaching over 21 million people every day. Its flagship in New Jersey is the Asbury Park Press (APP) -- the second most read newspaper in the state.
This week the Asbury Park Press has continued its watchdog investigations, this time focusing on the corruption in local municipal courts in New Jersey and the too cozy relationship between court employees and the local governments who pay their salaries. Reporter Kala Kachmar is heading the APP's watchdog investigation. She began her series...
"Somewhere in between burying her mother and taking care of her sick father in Maryland, Neptune resident Karen Marsh forgot to renew the licenses for her two rescue poodles.
Instead of paying the $17-per-dog renewal fee, she was compelled to spend a March day in municipal court and then pay $122 in fines and fees. The total would have been $178, but the judge suspended one of the fines in exchange for a guilty plea.
Marsh became prey to a system that increasingly treats hundreds of thousands of residents each year as human ATMs.
Many cash-strapped municipalities have turned to the law for new revenue...
Towns have the power to pass new rules or increase fines on old ones. And just like the singular judge-jury-and-jailer of the old Western days, a town first enforces the higher fines through its police force, then sends the defendant to its local court — which is headed by a judge appointed by the town leaders who started the revenue quest in the first place.
While municipal judges are sworn to follow the rule of law and judicial ethics, the pressure to bring in the money is potent in New Jersey, lawyers and former judges told the Press. In Eatontown, email records between town officials showed that increasing revenue generation by the local court was the main reason the council replaced the municipal judge in 2013..."
You can read the full report here:
A follow-up report explains that the New Jersey Legislature is planning to address the corruption at municipal courts, with the Chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee calling the "fairness of the system into question" and for the Legislature to "study municipal court reform." Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon (Republican Budget Officer) is promising to make it happen this year and plans on holding hearings across the state to understand the full extent of this local corruption -- case by case. He calls the current system a "municipal money grab" and promises to explore "legal remedies."
According to the state Administrative Office of Courts, over 75 percent of the more than 4.5 million cases handled by municipal courts statewide are adjudicated with a guilty plea or a plea deal and some kind of payment to the court. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently studying how municipal court corruption impacts the state's residents, especially the poor.
The APP report notes that the New Jersey State Bar Association earlier this year assembled a panel to study the independence of municipal judges and whether the political pressure they face through their appointment impacts decision-making. The panel is still receiving testimony and hasn't yet disclosed its findings.
The APP report also notes that "the municipal court system can be altered or abolished by an act of the Legislature at any time."
It cites a former member of the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Courts, who said that "the first step in fixing the broken municipal court system is to professionalize staff." Most prosecutors and judges are part-time employees who work in multiple towns.
Blogs like More Monmouth Musings and Sussex County Watchdog have received tip-offs about local municipal corruption in the past. If you have anything to pass along confidentially, please contact More Monmouth Musings at email@example.com or Sussex County Watchdog at firstname.lastname@example.org.