Local officials in New Jersey should regionalize their municipal court systems not just to save money, but also to eliminate any pressure on judges to levy fines to raise revenues, according to an influential former prosecutor.
James J. Gerrow Jr., who co-chairs the state Bar Associations' Judicial Administration Committee, recently made that recommendation to a state commission that is studying ways to get the state's 566 municipalities to share services or merge. The commission was appointed last year by Gov. Corzine, who has touted shared services as a way to cut costs and taxes during the recession.
Much of the talk has centered around small towns or school districts, but Gerrow said municipal courts should be a merger target as well.
"A judge should be free to call a case as he or she sees it and shouldn't have to worry about political interference," said Gerrow, explaining that local governments appoint judges and set salaries. The judges should not have fears, he said, "that if I find too many people not guilty in one night, gee, what's going to happen?"
Gerrow was one of scores of officials who were invited to testify before the Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation (LUARC) Commission. It issued its first report to the legislature last week.
Gerrow built a no-nonsense reputation as a Burlington County assistant prosecutor, handling death-penalty cases and investigating racial profiling cases on the New Jersey Turnpike. He also was a former municipal prosecutor and remembers how local judges would come and go.
The report said LUARC's first focus will be on creating models to fuse not only local courts, but public health departments and emergency and ambulance dispatch services. Eventually, it wants to make recommendations on mergers of towns.
Gerrow believes regionalizing local courts would help ensure justice is carried out, or at least eliminate the appearance of bias. People who attend court may believe "justice is for sale" based on what they see, he said. He also said that local courts handle a large volume of cases in a short time, giving the appearance of "assembly-line justice."
"There's a lot of good judges in our municipal courts, and I'd like to see them do what they feel is right without fears or concern about reappointment," he said.
Since many of the fines go to the local government, it would be better to have the governor or another official appoint municipal judges, Gerrow said.
David Udell, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said there is "an increasing trend" in courts across the country to come up with "alternative revenue sources" and to try to get money from the defendants who appear before them.
"The whole idea of balancing budgets on particular individuals who appear before them is troubling," said Udell.
Rebekah Diller, deputy director of the program, said Florida judges are threatening defendants with jail if they do not pay court fines. "Judges are not supposed to be debt collectors," she said.
Winnie Comfort, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts, bristled at the notion that that is happening in New Jersey.
"I can't accept the premise that justice is not served in municipal court," she said. "I'm just not engaging in this conversation."
Comfort also said the appointment of municipal judges is "completely up to local discretion." Currently, 21 municipalities have joined together to form joint courts, including a few in Camden and Gloucester Counties.
William G. Dressel Jr., executive director of the state League of Municipalities, said he had never heard of courts being "used as a cash cow." But he praised LUARC for looking at the courts to see if there are ways to bring efficiency and cost savings.
Dressel says he was happy LUARC realizes regionalization "is not a panacea to the tax dilemma," and is taking a "deliberative approach" to find out which regionalizations are worth it.
Dressel said some joint courts have been established in the state and have produced savings, while one in Clinton, in North Jersey, was disbanded because it was too expensive.
"Clearly the costs of running a single court should be looked at," said Dressel. "Everything has to be looked at."