Halpern, Crahay and Ackerman.
This is an appeal by appellant Mario Ferrari, Deputy Chief of Police of the Police Department of the City of Camden, from a judgment entered in the Chancery Division on November 6, 1974, denying his request for injunctive relief to restrain respondents from proceeding with police departmental charges against him and to have a hearer designated other than Harold Melleby, the Police Chief of the City of Camden.
Whether appellant should have sought relief in the Law Division by a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs will not be determined since the parties and the trial judge agreed that the Chancery Division had jurisdiction of the issue presented. Whether a law division judge, a Chancery Division judge, or both, had jurisdiction is of little moment because the issue presented will be decided by this court, as will appear infra.
The trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of respondents based on the pleadings before him, because he was of the opinion that appellant must first exhaust his administrative remedies before seeking relief in the courts. We disagree and reverse.
As indicated, certain disciplinary charges, which need not be detailed, were filed against appellant by Harold
Melleby, Camden's Chief of Police. Thereafter, David D. Kelly, Camden's Director of Public Safety, appointed Melleby as the designated hearer to try the charges. The thrust of appellant's Chancery Division complaint was to have Kelly designate someone other than Melleby because he was convinced that Melleby was prejudiced against him and would not give him a fair and impartial hearing. When respondents denied his request, he turned to the courts for relief. It is our view that courts should be available to litigants to grant meaningful relief before a departmental hearing is held if the facts and circumstances warrant it. See Kelly v. Sterr, 62 N.J. 105, 110 (1973) where the court commented upon the departmental hearing there held that "Certainly defendant was entitled to be tried before a fair and impartial tribunal."
This right to a fair and impartial hearing transcends appellant's individual rights. The general public must be assured that nobody charged with wrongdoing, even though not criminal in nature, be deprived of his constitutional right to a fair and impartial hearing. Appellate courts in particular are given the supervisory responsibility, which must never be lightly cast aside, to safeguard those fundamental rights and maintain the public's respect.
It is crystal clear, as established by custom and our case law, that the general rule is that a superior officer may reprimand subordinates, may prefer departmental charges against them and not be disqualified per se to try such charges when duly designated to do so. Kelly v. Sterr, supra; Zober v. Turner, 106 N.J.L. 86 (E. & A. 1930). We go further and hold that courts should be extremely cautious in interfering with that administrative procedure and, in fact, rarely anticipate the necessity of doing so.
However, in the instant case, we have determined that justice and administrative due process mandate the granting of relief before the hearing is held so as to avoid the needless expenditure of everyone's time and expense in holding the hearing and, if found guilty, an appeal to the Civil
Service Commission and, thereafter, an appeal to the courts. See Nolan v. Fitzpatrick, 9 N.J. 477 (1952).
Our reasons for determining that appellant will not receive a fair and impartial hearing in this case ...