The state Supreme Court declined to hear a case that challenged the way the municipal court system is run throughout the state, despite suggestions from a local attorney that the process contains inherent conflicts of interest.
Hammonton attorney Robert J. Pinizzotto said he sees a conflict in the appointment of municipal court judges to three-year terms instead of for life, as is the case with the state’s higher courts. Municipal prosecutors also may hold public office while county, state and federal prosecutors cannot.
“I believe it’s every attorney’s obligation to make the system better,” he said. “The municipal court procedure is intellectually corrupt (for allowing this exception). We have different rules and regulations that do not apply to the municipal court judicial system that apply to Superior Court, Appellate Division and the Supreme Court.”
Pinizzotto’s claims already were rejected at the superior and appellate courts levels, but he filed a motion for the state’s highest court to hear his argument in January. The court denied the request March 14.
Pinizzotto said the three-year appointments create a possibility judges could feel pressure to appease the governing body that appoints them so they could serve additional terms.
He sees a similar problem for municipal prosecutors who, under the current system, can seek and hold public office — something that is forbidden for prosecutorial attorneys at the county, state and federal levels. The municipal position often is a stepping stone for people with political ambitions, and Pinizzotto fears the practice could lead to a conflict of interest or at least create such an appearance.
The attorney fears the validity of the municipal court system is compromised by what he believes is an inherent conflict. Regarding prosecutors, the fear is the attorneys could prosecute a case for political reasons — or could leave that impression.
But other prosecutors say they do not think there is a problem, and the attorneys can recuse themselves when appropriate.
This case started in 2010 when Pinizzotto, a former prosecutor in Buena Vista and Hamilton townships, defended two clients who received traffic tickets in Hamilton Township and Atlantic City municipal courts. Pinizzotto argued the charges should be dismissed due to a fundamental flaw in the state’s municipal courts system and used these two cases to make his appeal. His argument applies not just to these incidents, but all cases that appear in municipal court.
Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Valerie Armstrong, who has since retired, ruled Sept. 1, 2010, that there was no legal basis to strike the current process. The Appellate Division of the state court upheld Armstrong’s ruling in November. Had the court ruled in Pinizzotto’s favor it could have invalidated every decision in a municipal court in the state.
But Pinizzotto filed a brief in January to the state Supreme Court asking it to hear his appeal. It was denied.
The only restriction for municipal prosecutors is they cannot be a prosecutor in the same town where they hold office, Pinizzotto said. But the staffs of county prosecutors or the state Attorney General’s Office are not permitted to be politically active in any way, he said. Under the Hatch Act, federal employees also cannot be involved in politics, he said.
“The dichotomy does not make sense,” Pinizzotto said. “The argument is it’s only municipal court. That argument offends me. It’s what the vast majority of the public go through the justice system. It should be beyond reproach.”
Pinizzotto has never held public office but is a former chair for the Atlantic County Democratic Committee. He said he did not know if he ever had to recuse himself while serving as party chair, but noted there is a difference between that position and being an elected official.
“I never saw it as that serious of an issue (at the time),” he said. “I began to look at the issues in a different light (after resigning his position with the party).”
Hamilton Township solicitor Robert Sandman was one of the attorneys who defended the case on behalf of Hamilton Township prosecutor Michelle Verno and the township. He said the decision by the Supreme Court shows there is no problem with the state’s municipal court procedures.
“The Supreme Court rules you can get a fair trial in municipal court,” he said. “Prosecutors are doing what they should do.”
But Pinizzotto disagrees and said the court is allowing the process to continue despite the questions he raises.
“They’re letting it go as it is,” he said.
The issue does affect local officials.
Atlantic County Surrogate James Curcio served as prosecutor of Folsom at the same time he was an Atlantic County Freeholder. He resigned his post as prosecutor when he was elected county surrogate in 2010. Curcio declined comment for the story.
Verno unsuccessfully ran for county clerk in November, and though she would have been permitted to hold both offices if elected, she said she would have resigned her prosecutor post due to time constraints.
Verno said she does not think there is an ethical problem.
“We are bound by the same code of ethics as every attorney in the state of New Jersey. I really don’t see the conflict, quite frankly,” she said. “If everyone follows the ethics code everything should be fine. That’s what it’s there for.”
Pinizzotto, a former president of the New Jersey State Association of Municipal Prosecutors said he has not made much headway with his former colleagues.
“They think I’m crazy,” he said. “A lot of municipal prosecutors are involved in political positions. They would have to pick and choose.”
The association did not return requests for comment for this story.
Another concern Pinizzotto has is members of the state Legislature who also are municipal prosecutors. As a member of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee municipal prosecutors could have appointment power over county prosecutors and judges.
Three members of the committee serve as prosecutors: Committee chair Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, Somerset, Middlesex, Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, Somerset, and Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R-Somerset, Morris. Scutari and Smith did not return calls seeking comment for the story.
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