TRENTON – Regional municipal courts covering whole counties may be coming soon to New Jersey, at least on a pilot basis, under legislation endorsed by two legislative committees that might reach Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk this month.

Assignment Judge Julio Mendez of the Atlantic vicinage said the pilot program authorized by A5176/S3049 will allow counties to volunteer to host regional courts, which he said can enhance the delivery of justice – and do so more efficiently.

“This is a concept that every chief justice going back to Chief Justice Vanderbilt, since the 1947 constitution, has been looking at,” Mendez said.

The pilot program would be option limited to smaller and less densely populated counties: Atlantic, Cape May, Salem, Cumberland, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Somerset, Warren, Morris and Sussex. At least five municipalities per county would have to take part.

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Atlantic County has plans to merge up to 16 municipal courts into one starting in January. County Counsel James Ferguson said it’s a two-year commitment that can be an example to the rest of the state.

“This plan would save participating municipalities anywhere from 30% to 40% on average and in some cases even more,” Sandson said. “That’s significant to the bottom line for the taxpayers of those municipalities.”

Retired Superior Court Judge Mark Sandson said the merged courts will provide better services for things like addiction recovery.

“It’s great that taxpayers will save a lot of money – tremendous,” Sandson said. “It’s better that all sorts of indicia of fairness that this will enhance.”

Joshua Reinitz, who used to chair the municipal court practice section for the New Jersey State Bar Association, said the idea needs to be studied and done carefully relative to issues such as appointing judges and retaining the current court staffs.

“I think the state bar’s position is that regionalization of municipal courts, especially the smaller municipal courts, would benefit everyone. But I think we really need to get on top of the logistics,” Reinitz said.

Amendments to the bill specify that the municipal court judges currently on the bench are to be considered for positions in the consolidated courts.

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, said it’s not easy to encroach on home rule in New Jersey but that all residents would benefit from such efforts to tame property taxes.

“Consolidation and shared services in a variety of areas is just something that we have to continue to try to do, to try to chip away at,” Mukherji said.

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