The Division on Civil Rights is investigating allegations of discrimination involving the Millville Municipal Court that were raised by a municipal judge.
The investigation will also encompass whether any person or entity has engaged in unlawful retaliation in response to those allegations.
A statement from Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin said, “The division is committed to conducting a full, fair, and independent investigation, and will not comment further while the investigation remains ongoing.”
A Cumberland County judge claimed that defendants with Latino-sounding last names were not being given the option of attending virtual hearings.
About a month later, Millville Municipal Court Judge Jason Witcher said the alleged discrimination was still going on in his courtroom. Witcher also is a municipal judge in the city of Bridgeton and in Carneys Point Township in Salem County.
Witcher said during a virtual court session that about 145 defendants were scheduled to appear before him for traffic offenses and other municipal matters, but few appeared to have Latino-sounding surnames.
Witcher directed a statement go into the court record at the end of his morning session on Monday, Dec. 5. The court office on Dec. 7 then released audio-only electronic copies of the session to news media, on request.
Witcher states in a clear portion of the recording: “Just for purposes of the record. That is, that is, on record. … is and has been the most discriminatory thing I have ever been a part of … entire career.”
“I believe that, based on what I did, my career is most likely over,” Witcher said. “If it’s not over, I’m worried about facing reprisals as a result, which in effect would cause me to leave the bench.”
In New Jersey, judges are advised to confine their statements to proceedings in court.
Media questions should be referred to judicial administrative staff.
Witcher aroused public controversy over discrimination in Millville when he noticed few Hispanic appearances in January 2021.
“The Municipal Court docket was lengthy that day, with 76 cases in addition to a trial. The audio recording shows almost all the matters were disposed of in minutes, which is not unusual in municipal courts,” said a report in the Daily Journal.
“A number of defendants listed had Hispanic names. Many, but not all, of them asked to use the services of the court’s interpreter. Cumberland County has a significant population of Spanish-speaking residents,” said the report. “A man with an Hispanic name was the 12th defendant to appear before Witcher that morning, and he required an interpreter. He was the first to be questioned from the bench about his knowledge of an option of appearing for a ‘virtual’ hearing.”
Witcher determined through a series of questions to a defendant that “somebody just assumed you needed to come to court,” and he asked nearly all subsequent defendants similar questions.
Witcher concluded that defendants who had Hispanic names were unaware of the option to appear for a virtual court hearing.
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