Senate President Steve Sweeney | August 6, 2021 | Press of Atlantic City
For several years now, many of us in state and local government have sought ways to make government, and our public institutions, work better — to make them more efficient, less costly and perhaps most of all, easier for the people who pay for them to access services.
Our Regional Municipal Court Pilot Program is one way to accomplish all three of those goals. Under legislation I sponsored recently along with Sen. Jim Beach, a pilot program to establish regional municipal courts would be established in no fewer than three counties and no fewer than five municipalities in each county.
Through municipal court regionalization, we will be able to achieve many of the same reforms we are attempting to enact in regard to school regionalization. Through court consolidation, we can leverage resources to save money, make the overall mechanics of the justice system more equitable and more efficient for all, and promote judicial independence.
But don’t just take my word for it. Those who work in our justice system, including judges, have been advocating for more municipal court consolidation for years.
The New Jersey Supreme Court Working Group on Municipal Courts has strongly recommended consolidating smaller courts as a means of promoting efficiency, fairness and cost savings. An earlier report issued by a committee formed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner found that consolidation would help prevent municipal courts from imposing inequitable fees for the purpose of generating revenue, a practice that disproportionately burdens communities of color and the poor. Consolidation would also improve access to the courts, through more frequent sessions, and be another way to bolster court security.
In the end, court regionalization, like school regionalization, is just one more common-sense way of sharing services to achieve savings, which I have been pushing for since my first days as a county officeholder. This sort of consolidation provides a practical path to cut expenses and deliver relief to the taxpayer, all the while making the system fairer and more efficient.
Indeed, the Working Group noted that of New Jersey’s municipalities, 299 have individual, stand-alone courts, 188 already share some type of service, and 76 municipalities have agreed to form 25 separate joint municipal courts. The working group found more than 100 municipal courts that handled fewer than 20 filings per week in the previous year — and three that handled no cases at all.
I applaud the places where visionary leaders have already begun to see the benefits of consolidating court services. In 2020, Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson proposed a regional consolidation program for municipal courts in Atlantic County. The county has since been awarded a $150,000 Local Efficiency Achievement Program Challenge Grant from the state Department of Community Affairs to support a countywide municipal court system.
Under the legislation, regional courts would have jurisdiction over all matters falling within the jurisdiction of the municipal courts that are part of the pilot program. All fees and fines collected by the regional municipal courts would be shared on a pro-rated basis equivalent to the costs of operating the regional system.
We understand there might be growing pains, and that court regionalization might not work everywhere immediately, given existing structures. This is why the pilot program will be so instructive in informing where consolidated services work best. While our court systems are already strong, they can be made better and more equitable.
Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting Administrative Director of the Courts who chaired the working group, put it well when commenting on New Jersey’s existing municipal court system when he noted that “as in all other areas of government and in society as a whole, we must remain vigilant and pursue meaningful reform where needed.”
Sen. Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, is the president of the New Jersey Senate.