ACLU of New Jersey has filed an appeal on behalf of an Egg Harbor City man found in contempt of court - for not removing his hat.
According to the brief filed with an appellate court Tuesday, Matthew Graham said his refusal to take off his hat during an October municipal court appearance in Egg Harbor City "was based on religious grounds." While Graham's charge of disorderly conduct was dismissed, Municipal Court Judge William Cappuccio held him in contempt and fined him $50 for failing to remove his hat.
Graham is an "orthodox Christian," said senior ACLUNJ staff attorney Alexander Shalom, "and believes he has a religious obligation to cover his head."
Graham was wearing a suit and a wool-knit hat, Shalom said, illustrating that "he was there not to show disrespect to the court."
But the specific religious belief is not relevant to the appeal, Shalom said.
"The belief is one sincerely held by him," Shalom said. "The government should not get into the business of which particular religion is worthy of religious protection."
The appeal, the brief states, "centers on the constitutional rights of indigent people to full and fair access to the courts."
According to the brief, Graham appealed the contempt of court ruling, but "rather than attest that he agreed to pay for transcript costs, he applied to be treated as an indigent person."
He received a letter from the municipal court clerk telling him that his appeal for a waiver of filing fees, transcript costs and assignment of counsel was denied, and that he needed to pay the filing fee by Oct. 28 or his appeal was subject to dismissal.
He then sent a hand-written letter to Superior Court Judge Michael Donio questioning why he had been denied treatment as an indigent person. According to the brief, the unemployed Graham "did not understand why he had been 'denied a fee waiver of $75, when (he does not) even have 75 cents right now.'"
Donio replied in a letter that the contempt charge was "merely for not taking your hat off in a Court of law when requested to do so by the Judge and Court staff" and did not entitle Graham to "a free lawyer or a free transcript."
"You made a conscious decision in open Court to defy a Court Order by not taking your hat off like everyone else does in a Courtroom," Donio wrote, according to the brief. "You chose to do that of your own volition. Therefore, you can chose to hire a lawyer to fight this if you want. The State of New Jersey is not going to provide you with a free transcript and/or a free attorney."
The brief claims that Donio's denial violates "both well-established United States Supreme Court precedent and clear New Jersey Rules of Court ... (and) effectively closes the courthouse doors to a poor defendant."
Graham and the ACLU are requesting the appellate court reverse the denial of his request for waiver of filing fees and transcript costs.
Graham could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
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