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In re 1987 Essex County Judicial Budget Impasse

Decided: November 25, 1987.


On petition for review pursuant to Rule 1:33-9.

For modification -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Pollock, O'Hern, Stein and Garibaldi. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, Justice. (Justice Handler did not participate.)


This matter concerns the resolution of the impasse between the Board of Freeholders of Essex County and the Assignment Judge of Essex County regarding the Essex County judicial budget for the 1987 operating year pursuant to Rule 1:33-9.

In October of 1986 the Assignment Judge submitted to the County a 1987 judicial budget of $24,212,257. The County advised the Assignment Judge that it would not be able to appropriate that sum. Accordingly, the judiciary reviewed the budget, and on April 22, 1987, submitted a revised budget of $20,947,044. The County determined it would likewise not be able to appropriate that sum. On May 14, 1987, the County adopted its final 1987 budget in which $18,521,431 was appropriated for the judiciary.*fn1

On June 17, 1987, pursuant to Rule 1:33-9(a), the Assignment Judge entered a Recommended Disposition/Order directing the County to increase the judicial budget to $21,643,824, or approximately $3.1 million above the County's appropriation. The County*fn2 filed its notice of petition for review and the Assignment Judge filed a response as mandated by Rule 1:33-9(c).

Pursuant to Rule 1:33-9(d), the Court granted the County's petition to review the Recommended Disposition/Order of the Assignment Judge and referred the matter to a three-member panel. The panel consisted of the Hon. Thomas F. Shebell, Jr., J.A.D., the Hon. Charles S. Joelson, J.A.D. (Retired), and Walter Wechsler, formerly Budget Director of the State of New Jersey. The panel conducted hearings on August 5, 6, and 7, 1987, and rendered its report on August 18, 1987. Both the

Assignment Judge and the County filed exceptions to that report. This opinion follows an Order entered by the Court on September 15, 1987.


The New Jersey Constitution of 1947 provides that "[t]he Supreme Court shall make rules governing the administration of all Courts in the State . . .", N.J. Const. of 1947 art. VI, § 2, para. 3, and that "[t]he Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shall be the administrative head of all the courts in the State." N.J. Const. of 1947 art. VI, § 7, para. 1.

The earlier New Jersey Constitutions of 1776 and 1844 did not give the Court the authority to provide for the administration of the courts. Indeed, many claim that

[t]he intent of the 1947 Constitutional Convention was to vest the Supreme Court with the broadest possible administrative authority. Conceptually, such authority encompasses all facets of the internal management of our courts. This was made clear by the Committee on the Judiciary which considered it a fundamental requirement that the courts be vested with "exclusive authority over administration." [ Lichter v. County of Monmouth, 114 N.J. Super. 343, 349 (App.Div.1971) (citations omitted).]

See 2 Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of 1947, at 1180; Passaic County Probation Officers' Ass'n v. County of Passaic, 73 N.J. 247, 251 (1977).

The Court's responsibility for the administration of all the courts has been consistently interpreted to imply the "power reasonably necessary to fulfill that responsibility." In re Court Budget and Court Personnel Essex County, 81 N.J. 494, 496 (1980); Passaic County Probation Officers' Ass'n v. County of Passaic, supra, 73 N.J. at 252; In re Mattera, 34 N.J. 259, 272 (1961); In re Court Reorganization Plan of Hudson County, 161 N.J. Super. 483, 490 (App.Div.1978), aff'd o.b., 78 N.J. 498 (1979). Inherent in the Court's authority over the administration of the courts is its "concomitant responsibility to see that the public interest is fully served by the proper functioning of this vital branch of our government." Passaic

County Probation Officers' Ass'n v. County of Passaic, supra, 73 N.J. at 253.

Pursuant to Rule 1:33-4, we delegated to each Assignment Judge of the state, as the authorized representative of the Chief Justice, plenary responsibility for the administration of all the courts in his vicinage. Those responsibilities include all matters affecting county and municipal government, including but not limited to budgets, personnel, and facilities; the supervision and efficient management of all court matters; the supervision, superintendence, and allocation of all judges and judicial support personnel; and the appointment and discharge of judicial support personnel. Assignment Judges have the inherent power not only to provide the facilities, personnel, and resources reasonably necessary for the operation of the courts but also "to compel the appropriation and expenditure of funds by the coequal executive and legislative branches of government to accomplish such purpose, subject only to bounds of reasonable discretion." In re Court Reorganization Plan of Hudson County, supra, 161 N.J. Super. at 491 (citations omitted).

In short, an Assignment Judge, within his vicinage, has the power and authority over all facets of the internal management of the courts. Likewise, the Assignment Judge has "the concomitant responsibility to see that the public interest is fully served" by the judicial system in the vicinage. Passaic County Probation Officers' Ass'n v. County of Passaic, supra, 73 N.J. at 253.

As a matter of comity and respect for the other branches of government, we exercise our power to administer the courts sparingly and with deference to the other branches of government. The public is best served when all branches of government cooperate in attempting to accommodate their respective interests. To do otherwise is "pointless and self-defeating." Passaic County Probation Officers' Ass'n v. County of Passaic, supra, 73 N.J. at 255; Matter of the Camden County 1987

Judicial Budget Impasse, 109 N.J. 24 (1987); Matter of Judges of Passaic County, 100 N.J. 352 (1985); In re Court Reorganization Plan of Hudson County, supra, 161 N.J. Super. at 491.

It is beyond dispute that our counties have serious and legitimate concerns regarding the budgets for the state trial court system. "Counties provide 91% of the personnel and 82% of the expenditures" of the state trial court system. Report of the State of New Jersey County and Municipal Government Study Commission on Judicial Unification, July, 1987, at XIV; Matter of the Camden County 1987 Judicial Budget Impasse, supra, 109 N.J. at 25; Matter of Judges of Passaic County, supra, 100 N.J. at 362; In re Hudson County 1982 Judicial Budget Impasse, 91 N.J. 412, 420 (1982); In re Union County 1981 Judicial Budget Impasse, 87 N.J. 1, 3 (1981).

Faced with rising costs and less funds available from other governmental sources, counties are understandably reluctant to increase the burden on their taxpayers. Changes in the counties' funding of the state trial court system are under much discussion. Nevertheless, under current law counties still bear the major responsibility for the funding of the state trial court system.

Throughout the years "county governments have manifested a genuine commitment to the proper funding of an effective court system." Matter of Judges of Passaic County, supra, 100 N.J. at 362. This commitment, we believe, is a recognition by the counties that, although an integral part of the statewide court system, trial courts serve the legal needs of the residents of the county. An efficient and effective legal system is essential for the safety and well-being of the counties' citizens. The County, therefore, has an extremely strong interest in ensuring that the people of Essex County are well-served by the judicial branch.

Although we are mindful of the fiscal problems facing the counties, we must keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to ensure that the judicial functions within the county be performed

on such a level "that the administration of justice is not impaired." In re Union County 1981 Judicial Budget Impasse, supra, 87 N.J. at 3. Regardless of the county's fiscal condition, this goal cannot be ignored. Maintaining the "delicate balance" between the county's need for fiscal responsibility and the court's need for the proper administration of justice "is no easy task." Id.

Recognizing the counties' plight and in an attempt to accommodate their legitimate concerns, we promulgated Rule 1:33-9. The Rule sets forth the procedures to be followed in resolving a budgetary dispute between the judiciary and the county government. Rule 1:33-9 provides for the designation of a three-member panel consisting of Appellate Division judges, retired judges and justices from outside the vicinage and such other persons as the Chief Justice deems qualified to review the impasse. The panel holds hearings, in which each party is represented by counsel and has an opportunity to present its position. The panel thus assures each party "that its position will receive a disinterested review and a balanced presentation to this Court." Matter of Camden County 1987 Judicial Budget Impasse, supra, 109 N.J. at 25. The panel's test in reviewing the Assignment Judge's request is "whether the appropriation is reasonably necessary." R. 1:33- 9(e). The procedures set forth in Rule 1:33-9 have been followed in this case.


The panel heard extensive testimony during its deliberations. Trial Court Administrator William W. Carpenter testified on behalf of the judiciary as did Edwin Kennedy, Chief of Statistics for the Administrative Office of the Courts. Donald Biase, Special Assistant to the Essex County Executive, testified on behalf of the County. The County also called as an expert witness Carl Baar, a Professor of Political Science at Brock University, Ontario, Canada. Professor Baar is also Director of

the Judicial Administration Program at the University and a lecturer at the Institute for Court Management of the National Judicial College, Reno, Nevada.

The County's major argument throughout these proceedings is that it faces a fiscal crisis in 1987 and simply cannot afford to appropriate the requested funds for the judicial budget. Although there is no "cap" law*fn3 limitation problem in Essex County for 1987, the County Executive made a decision that there would be no increase in county taxes in 1987. This decision is based on the County Executive's belief that he received a mandate from the people who elected him to prevent any increase in county taxes. EXH. J-22. Unfortunately, while revenues from county taxes remained stationary in 1987, revenues from other sources, such as federal revenue-sharing, substantially decreased. Thus, in preparing its 1987 budget, the county was faced with budget requests that substantially exceeded available revenues. In February of 1987 the County Executive announced that the county was experiencing horrendous problems "balancing its 1987 budget" and urged a hiring freeze in all county departments. EXH. C-21. In furtherance of this position the County determined that nonmandated raises for county employees would be frozen for 1987. Accordingly, the County asserts that it is treating the judiciary similarly to the county executive departments, and that it would be demoralizing and counterproductive to allow raises for the judicial employees.

Due to this fiscal crisis, the County provided the judiciary with a budget 12% below its 1986 appropriation. Furthermore, the County suggests that there be no salary increases throughout the judiciary for unclassified employees, that there be reductions in the county clerk's judicial staff, that the number of secretaries and law clerks for judges be reduced by one-half,

that funding for the law library staff be eliminated, and that certain new and/or vacant positions in the courts and jury department be eliminated.

The Assignment Judge argues that the budget forces the judiciary to bear an inordinate share of County cutbacks. Although total appropriations for the County in 1987 declined by just under 3%, the amount appropriated for the judiciary declined by 12%. Put another way, the judicial budget is approximately 6% of the overall county budget but sustained 25% of the cuts in the county budget. Aside from a very small budget category for "unclassified" expenses and expenditures of amounts received from state and federal grants, the judiciary experienced the greatest decline in appropriations of all major categories in the county budget. In fact, with the exception of the unclassified category, the state and federal grants category and the surrogate, whose budget was decreased by $10,712, the overall budgets of all other departments and agencies in the county were increased.

However, the County responds that for the period from 1981 through 1986 the judicial budget increased at an average annual rate of 8.9%, or a total five-year increase of 44%, whereas the county executive departments for the same period averaged only a 3.4% annual increase, which totaled 17% over the same five-year period.

Moreover, the County asserts that the judiciary did not even expend all its 1986 judicial budget. This allegation is contradicted by the Assignment Judge. He claims that the vacancies that existed at the end of 1986 and resulted in a 1986 budget surplus were not the result of voluntary actions by the judiciary but were the result of the County's failure to adopt a budget earlier. Therefore, positions that had been budgeted for a full year in the judiciary's 1986 requested budget could be filled only at mid-year or later. Because of the County's fiscal crisis the judiciary voluntarily withheld action on filling vacancies until the end of the year and then was unable to fill them

because of the County's failure or refusal to process the necessary personnel action forms.

Both parties presented detailed evidence concerning the caseload and costs per judge and other court personnel as well as data on the productivity of the various departments of the judiciary. The evidence presented included comparisons among the twenty-one counties in the state. The panel, however, refused to make specific findings on the number of staff or costs per judge assigned to the County or the relative productivity of the judges. According to the panel, there were "too many variables and too little known about the significance of such statistics for any meaningful conclusions to be drawn from the data presented." Panel Report at 4. Neither side in a Rule 1:33-9 appropriation hearing has the burden of proof, the sole test being whether disputed appropriations are "reasonably necessary." R. 1:33-9(e).

In reaching its conclusion on whether the requested appropriations are "reasonably necessary," the panel was mindful of the need to strike a balance between the County's fiscal needs and the court's needs for proper administration of justice. It stated:

This panel is keenly sensitive to the present state of the County's finances and has rendered its recommendations as to what is reasonably necessary for the operation of the courts against that background, but also with an understanding of how the County got into its present budget crisis. The obligation to properly fund Judiciary needs remains upon the County. The panel cannot recommend budget cuts which would result in a diminution of the quality of justice to be accorded the citizens of Essex County and the State of New Jersey when the necessary funding can be found within the resources reasonably available. If the Freeholders do not desire to cut expenditures by other departments within the County in order to fund such recommendations of the panel as may be adopted by the Supreme Court, then emergency appropriations with a carry-over to the 1988 budget may be feasible. [Panel Report at 4.]

Succinctly stated, the panel decided to preserve the status quo by establishing a wage freeze, by funding existing positions, and by denying funding for new promotions and positions. The panel acknowledged that its recommendations would ...

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