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August 09, 2023

Millville municipal court discriminated against Hispanic defendants when scheduling hearings, AG says

A lawsuit filed by the New Jersey Attorney General's Office claims that those who were or were perceived to be Spanish-speaking were denied access to virtual court appearances

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Millville Lawsuit Discrimination Edwin J. Torres/N.J. Governor's Office/Flickr

The New Jersey Attorney General's Office has filed a lawsuit against the City of Millville, alleging that Millville's municipal court discriminated against Hispanic and Latino defendants when scheduling court appearances.

Millville's municipal court allegedly discriminated against Hispanic and Latino defendants when scheduling court appearances for at least six months last year, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the New Jersey Attorney General's Office. 

While Millville's municipal court offered in-person and virtual court sessions, as well as Spanish interpreters for both, the lawsuit alleges that Millville scheduled Spanish-speaking defendants and defendants who seemed to be Spanish-speaking to appear at in-person court proceedings, denying them equal access to virtual court sessions.

Beginning last June, Millville scheduled in-person court appearances on Mondays and virtual ones on Wednesdays. While a virtual interpreting service was available, the court rarely utilized it and only scheduled the interpreter during in-person sessions, the lawsuit claims. Defendants who were Spanish-speaking, or had names that made them appear to be Spanish-speaking, were regularly scheduled for in-person appearances on Mondays. 

"New Jersey's laws forbid discrimination on the basis of national origin," said Attorney General Matthew Platkin. "That anyone in the City of Millville had to face discrimination from any public entity is disappointing, disheartening and unacceptable. Such practices only serve to erode the public's trust. New Jersey is committed to eliminating discrimination, no matter where it occurs." 

People with Spanish-sounding surnames were regularly scheduled for in-person sessions even when they did not need an interpreter, and in many cases when they were not required to appear in person due to court orders, the lawsuit claims. This practice went on until late December of last year, when Municipal Court Judge Jason Witcher publicly alleged that the court was denying virtual court appearances to people who appeared to be Spanish-speaking. 

Following those allegations, in early 2023, the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts began investigating the claims. New Jersey's Division on Civil Rights launched its own investigation, looking back at nearly two years of court calendars, invoices for interpreting services, emails from court staff and audio recordings of court appearances with a Spanish interpreter. 

The Division on Civil Rights' investigation corroborated Witcher's allegations of discrimination, finding that Hispanic individuals were "disproportionately" scheduled to appear in court in person. Even if the schedule is perceived as neutral, the lawsuit claims that it had a disparate impact on Hispanic and Latino defendants who incurred travel costs and other expenses. 

"Public trust depends on the promise that our public institutions will treat all people equally," said Sundeep Iyer, director of the Division on Civil Rights. "Discrimination undermines that promise, and it violates our civil rights laws. The complaint we are announcing... reflects our ongoing commitment to ensuring that our institutions of public trust treat all New Jerseyans fairly and equally." 

The Administrative Office of Courts' investigation, the results of which were released in February, found "no direct evidence that Millville Municipal Court officials were denying defendants the opportunity to appear for court virtually because they had a Hispanic/Latino-sounding surname or a need for interpreting." 

That investigation, the lawsuit claims, did not take into account whether Millville engaged in scheduling practices that "discriminated on the basis of national origin by treating Hispanic or Latino defendants differently than others." 

The Attorney General's Office has asked the courts to remedy Millville's alleged violations of New Jersey's discrimination laws, including prohibiting Millville's municipal court from maintaining a policy that denies defendants equal access to virtual court appearances and seeking damages for financial losses suffered by those who were allegedly discriminated against. 

Millville City Attorney Brock D. Russell released a statement regarding the lawsuit on Wednesday, saying that the state has the sole power to oversee the operations of Millville's municipal court. 

"While the City of Millville takes very seriously allegations of discriminatory treatment in its Municipal Court or elsewhere in the city, under the doctrine of separation of powers, remediation of such a problem must be made by the State Judiciary," Russell wrote. "Of course, the city has in the past and will continue to provide its full cooperation to the Assignment Judge and other members of the Administrative Office of the Courts as may be requested."