Article by Peter H. Lederman, Esq.
Published in the New Jersey Law Journal
Unless you were buried under a snow drift after our most recent winter weather event, you heard about certain people in high places (the President?) calling into question the ability of other people, also in high places (certain Federal Court Judges?) to read and interpret something that, unlike this writer’s prose is, “so simple and so beautifully and perfectly written” that a “bad high school student would understand this.” Reflecting further, as only this POTUS can, he posited a belief that “…courts seem to be so political and it would be so great for our system if they would be able to read a statement and do what’s right.”
These remarks resulted from problems the Administration was having enforcing one of its showcase Executive Orders, involving who can enter the US and more importantly, who can’t. But I try not to get bogged down in looking too closely at something, when there may be a deeper meaning transcending the obvious. I realize from my many years in the practice that there may often be a hidden story, an unrevealed truth that often escapes us when we focus on the obvious. We are often told to search for the truth and seek true meaning to reach that higher understanding.
With this in mind, our President’s words may have a different meaning for us in New Jersey. Consider how they reflect on the way we go about appointing our Municipal Court Judges, Prosecutors and Public Defenders.
Judges, Prosecutors and Public Defenders in New Jersey Municipal Courts are selected, borrowing the words of another President “of, by and for” the elected officials of each town. So political. They look to these people and no one else when it comes to being appointed and then retaining their jobs. In the case of certain courts, appointments are made by the Governor. Again, so political!
There is no vetting, no less input from the Bar or the public. There is no public scrutiny. There is no process where proposed appointments are publicly proposed, evaluated and then selected. They have no tenure and no job security, with judicial appointments for only three years (Prosecutors have to be appointed every year!) Bend someone’s nose out of joint and you’re history. Same thing for not meeting town budget projections or making cops unhappy. Consider for a moment what this POTUS would do if Judges in the Federal Courts failed to do his bidding, when they had to be re-appointed every three years?
Towns recently went through the annual process of appointing Municipal Court Judges, Prosecutors and Public Defenders as part of Municipal Reorganization. As I appear in different courts around New Jersey, I hear stories about how this Judge was not reappointed and another Judge was, how a certain Prosecutor and Public Defender after years of service, were suddenly gone. The stories about what happened are different, but are basically the same. Their inability to continue had nothing to do with the quality of their work. Rather, It all came down to two letters, “R” and “D”.
Now, I always thought that “R and D” was something good. “R and D” kept a forward looking company profitable. Research and Development provided the technology and ultimately new products which going forward, improved what was available when the need for older products had worn out. Invest in “R and D” and your business would hopefully be cutting edge in the future.
But we’re talking about a different type of “R” and “D” when it comes to Municipal Court appointments. This “R” is short for Republican. Not surprisingly, the “D” stands for Democrat. With some exceptions, this designation is often the determining factor in determining if you stay or go and who’s going to replace you. Change the Mayor and Council majority after an election and your judicial appointment may be coming to a sudden end, should your politics be on the wrong side. “So political,” indeed.
It can get more involved though. People running for office, whether they be “Rs” or “Ds” need finances to run elections. In politics, money is power. It pays for organization and election campaign costs. Spending more can improve chances to succeed in an election. It shouldn’t be surprising that an expectation exists to contribute to one campaign or the other. It should also not be surprising, that you can lose your position if expectations are not met.
Then again, there are Judges, Prosecutors and Public Defenders who rise from this swamp (did I say that?) of a judicial system, and become giants in doing what they do. They are reappointed whether they are “Rs” in Democratic towns or “Ds” in Republican towns. Despite all that makes no sense in a judicial system, they make sense of it, flourish in it and are able to “read a statement and do what’s right”! They do their best dispensing justice without having to constantly look over their shoulders.
But too often, this is not the case. Courts shouldn’t be so political that dedication to job and high level of performance just aren’t enough to survive, where only the most astute can. In this time of “change” that elected our President, it’s time for us to take care of business at home and reform our Municipal Courts.