Claims of ethnic discrimination, especially when made by a government official, must be taken seriously and investigated. The cost of that is worth the justice it insures and the support it gives to the public’s confidence in its governments.
New Jersey state government recently responded to such a claim regarding Millville municipal court with a fair and full investigation. Throughout, the judiciary and the Murphy administration’s careful diligence reassured the public that they would get to the bottom of the matter and take whatever actions were appropriate.
The case also provided some insights into officials, politicians and advocacy organizations.
Millville Municipal Court Judge Jason Witcher made a rather inflammatory accusation in December — that defendants with Latino-sounding surnames were being required to appear in person and not allowed to have their cases heard remotely online like others. Witcher called it “the most discriminatory event I have ever been a part of in my entire career.” This claim apparently was based on anecdotal comments from defendants, who might jump at the chance of encouraging the judge handling their case to be sympathetic.
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The N.J. Judiciary started an investigation into the claim, and soon after said it hadn’t so far uncovered any signs of prejudice, which suggested that if there was bias it probably wasn’t widespread or egregious. “To this point, the investigation has revealed that individuals with Hispanic/Latino surnames have appeared for both virtual and in-person appearances in the Millville Municipal Court and continue to be scheduled for both,” said Pete McAleer, a spokesperson for the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
A week later, members of the Legislature’s Latino and Black caucuses called for an independent investigation. That showed the potential for political posturing about the claim, especially since the Judiciary investigation already was independent of Millville government and as expert as possible for such a case.
That potential was clearer still in January when the Latino Action Network Foundation announced it already had decided Millville officials were guilty of “blatant discrimination, retaliation and attempted cover-up.” It had written to state Attorney General Matthew Platkin in December demanding his office investigate too. A few days later, Platkin said the state Division of Civil Rights had been encouraged to investigate from the start by the Judiciary and was doing so.
Then in February, the Judiciary announced its completed investigation had not found evidence of bias by city Municipal Court staff in scheduling defendants with Latino-sounding last names.
Witcher said it wasn’t important whether he agreed with that finding, and seemed to back off his claim. “I don’t know why the observations of a small-time municipal court judge in a rural county gained so much attention, except that the issue was important enough to deserve the attention it has received,” he said. “If people benefit by it, and the system is better because of it, then it is worth all the hell I’ve had to endure for it.”
There’s some truth in that. State government showed it knew how to appropriately respond to such a potentially divisive claim.
The events also suggest that in New Jersey, officials should be careful that sensitivity and sympathy to claims of discrimination don’t outrun the reasonable basis for making such allegations.