This week, a New Jersey municipal court judge said he was threatened with being kicked off the bench because he said Latino defendants in his Cumberland County courtroom were forced to come to court for hearings while others were given the option of making virtual appearances.
Judge Jason Witcher of the Millville municipal court said he first noticed the alleged discrimination in October. After trying to solve the problem behind the scenes with court administrators, he brought it up in open court on Monday morning.
Witcher asked people who were in court for traffic violations and other minor offenses if they were given the option to attend their hearings by phone or video. When most of the Latino defendants said no, the judge said, “This is the most discriminatory thing I have ever seen in my whole career.”
Witcher told NJ Advance Media on Thursday that he became worried a few months ago when he saw that most of the defendants in the cases he was hearing in Millville were Spanish speakers or had last names that sounded Latino. In the virtual sessions he ran, most of the defendants were not Latino.
The 50-year-old judge said, “I was angry at what I saw.” “I was angry because I kept seeing that the (Spanish)-speaking people were treated differently from everyone else.”
There are interpreters for both in-person and online sessions. This means that, as required by state law, everyone can take part in online hearings.
After pointing out what he thinks is a pattern of discrimination in the way cases are scheduled in court on Monday, Witcher said he was threatened with being kicked off the bench for something unrelated.
Assignment Judge Benjamin Telsey, who is in charge of all court operations in Cumberland, Salem, and Gloucester counties, sent questions to the New Jersey Judiciary communications office in Trenton.
Kimberly Hamlyn, who is in charge of scheduling court hearings for the Millville court, sent questions to state judiciary officials.
A spokeswoman for the judiciary said that the claims of discrimination in Millville were brought to the attention of state officials.
MaryAnn Spoto, the communications manager for the New Jersey Judiciary in Trenton, said, “We just found out about this, and we’re looking into it.”
Spoto said that it is the job of the municipal court staff to tell defendants what their options are when they are called to court.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, municipal courts in New Jersey have mostly worked virtually. This is because officials in the court system found that Zoom and phone-in appearances were better for many people. For many people, going to court sessions meant they didn’t have to take a day off of work or make plans for child care.
More complex cases still require in-person appearances.
After COVID precautions were eased in the courts, many municipal courtrooms kept using a mix of virtual and in-person court days. Witcher said that’s when he started to notice the alleged problem in his courtroom. On Mondays, the court is held in person in Millville, and on Wednesdays, the court is held online.
A recording of Monday’s court session, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media, shows that Witcher asked each defendant if they knew they could choose to appear at a virtual hearing instead of coming to court.
Many of the defendants with Latino-sounding last names and those who spoke in court with a Spanish-speaking interpreter said they didn’t know about the virtual option. Monday, Witcher’s courtroom heard cases involving people who got tickets for not having their papers with them when they were pulled over, driving while their licenses were suspended, or driving carelessly.
Some defendants said they would have liked to show up in person, but most said they would have preferred to watch their hearings online.
When one man said he hadn’t been told about the online option, Witcher said, “So someone thought you had to come to court because you speak Spanish?”
“Si,” replied the man.
One man told the judge that he had told the court that he needed an interpreter.
“They didn’t tell you that you could use a phone interpreter?
” asked Witcher.
“No,” replied the man.
A mother told the judge that she was told she had to go to court in person because she didn’t have her driver’s license with her when she was pulled over for speeding.
Witcher told her, “I’m sorry for the trouble this causes.” “Like everyone else, you should have had the chance to be on video.”
A Latino man told the judge that he came to court from Atlantic City.
Witcher told him, “You should have been able to be on video like everyone else.” “You should have been treated like everyone else.”
When asked by the judge, a few non-Latino defendants said they were told they could appear in court virtually, but they chose to come in person.
Witcher has been a municipal court judge for more than 12 years. He said that he started to notice a few months ago that there weren’t many Spanish speakers in his virtual hearings, but there were a lot of Latino-sounding last names on the in-person docket.
He said Thursday, “I brought up that issue because it seemed like something was wrong with the way things were set up.”
He said that he told Hamlyn, who is in charge of the Millville court, about the problem. He said that she told the judge that the timing must have been a coincidence and that she wasn’t being unfair.
During another court session, he said he saw the same scheduling problem.
He said that he later called a meeting with Hamlyn and others and went through each case from the day’s docket to ask why they were told to show up in person.
He said that Hamlyn told him that her staff made the plans and that she didn’t know the details.
Witcher also runs the Bridgeton, Penns Grove, and Pennsville/Carneys Point municipal courts. He said he told Hamlyn to talk to her counterpart in the Bridgeton municipal court and follow their rules for scheduling.
When he saw that nothing had changed in Millville, Witcher said he decided to go to court on Monday to make his worries known.
Before the court broke for lunch at the end of the morning session, Witcher said he was going to say something.
“Just for the record, that is on record…,” the judge said before saying that the court session was the most unfair thing he’d ever seen in his job.
Officials from the court gave NJ Advance Media a recording that stopped at that point and began again when the afternoon session began.
But Witcher said that his speech went on for a few more minutes. He said he didn’t know why it wasn’t part of the session recording.
“Part of what I said was that this was the most unfair thing I’d ever been a part of or seen, and I was embarrassed and ashamed to have been in charge of it. I hope that this doesn’t make people think that this is how the whole justice system works. The judge said, “I don’t think it does.”
Witcher said that everyone should have the same chance to go to court.
“It is very wrong to keep these people from getting the same access as other people just because they have traditional Spanish last names. “Seeing it made me feel sick,” he said.
Read More: 16-year-old Baseball Kid From New Jersey Died in an ATV Accident in Georgia
When asked why Witcher’s full statement about the alleged discrimination wasn’t on the court recording, Hamlyn, the court administrator, said that the audio disc had the whole recording of the day’s events.
Witcher said he got an email from Telsey, the assignment judge, after Monday’s session. In the email, Telsey threatened to remove him from the bench over a different compliance issue.
Witcher says that this issue is about a medical accommodation he asked for under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He wanted to be able to appear virtually for virtual court sessions instead of having to be in the courtroom, which is what judges have to do.
Telsey talked about the discrimination claims in Millville at the end of the email, he said.
“He blames me for the discrimination and for not being involved in overseeing my court,” Witcher said, adding that he replied to that email and explained the steps he had taken.
“I did everything I thought was the right thing to do,” Witcher said. “It’s outrageous to say that I didn’t watch over my court and let this happen because of it.”