Politicians fight in municipal court

It's a new-found perk to holding municipal office:  When you don't like something someone says about you, instead of hiring a lawyer and going to court using YOUR money, just file a criminal complaint, have it signed-off on by a municipal employee whose job YOU control, and then have the part-time prosecutor (a lawyer also in private practice) whose job YOU control prosecute the case for you.  Heck, YOU even control the job of the municipal court judge you will be appearing before. 

And even if they transfer it to another court, it is still the same law firms chasing the same municipal court appointments.  One year you are the prosecutor in this town, the next in that, or someone in your law firm is -- and it goes for municipal court judges too who are also lawyers in private practice (an unheard of practice across America).  Which one of these attorneys is going to stand up to a Mayor or Deputy Mayor who holds their living in his or her hands each January when they select the attorneys to fill the lawyer-only part-time municipal jobs the property taxpayers will be paying for?   

Yesterday, the Star-Ledger reported on such a case in Union County between Assemblyman Jamel Holley and Roselle Mayor Christine Danserau:

"Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union) faces a petty disorderly person's charge of harassment that carries a $500 fine, but the money isn't the point, said Roselle Mayor Christine Danserau.

'This is about the fact that harassment is unacceptable,' said Dansereau, who claims she was the target of Holley's obscene tirades.

...The strained relationship between Holley and Dansereau stems from a dispute over the borough's proposed $56 million library and recreation center, called the Mind and Body project. Holley has been pushing for the project to move forward, and Dansereau has pushed for more details about how much it will add to homeowners' tax bills."

Guess what?  The taxpayers are paying for all of it because it's a perk of holding municipal office.

This systemic corruption is being examined right now by the media, legal organizations, and by the New Jersey Legislature.  The Gannett publishing organization -- the largest in America by circulation, reaching over 21 million people every day -- has been taking the lead with its watchdog investigative series on municipal court corruption in New Jersey.  The series has focused on the too cozy relationship between court employees and the local governments who pay their salaries. 

New Jersey's municipal courts have been described by the media as "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..."

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 Gannett 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 Gannett 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 artvg@aol.com or Sussex County Watchdog at info@sussexcountywatchdog.com.