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In re P.L. 2001

April 19, 2006


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 375 N.J. Super. 485 (2005).


(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In this appeal, the Court must determine whether the Probation Officer Community Safety Unit Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 2B:10A-1 to -3, 2C:39-6(c)(17), interferes with the Court's exclusive constitutional authority over the administration of the courts.

The Act establishes within the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) a "Probation Officer Community Safety Unit" consisting of no less than 200 probation officers. It requires that at least five officers from the Safety Unit be assigned to each county. The Act authorizes these probation officers to carry firearms and enforce warrants for the arrest of probationers who violate the conditions of their probation sentence. In addition, officers within the Safety Unit must undergo law enforcement and firearms training, and must annually qualify in the use of a firearm. Lastly, the Act provides that the Administrative Director of the Courts report to the Legislature within 18 months regarding the effectiveness of the Safety Unit in tracking and apprehending probationers.

The Administrative Director of the Courts Richard Williams filed a complaint on April 23, 2002, seeking a judgment declaring that the Act violated the New Jersey Constitution. The trial court allowed the Probation Association of New Jersey and the Probation Association of New Jersey Professional Supervisors Union (PANJ) to intervene. Despiteits intervenor status, PANJ has been treated as a defendant throughout the litigation.

The trial court granted plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, declaring the Act unconstitutional. The Appellate Division affirmed in a comprehensive opinion. Williams v. State (In re P.L. 2001, Chapter 362), 375 N.J. Super. 485, (App. Div. 2005). The panel noted that the Act contravened Supreme Court directives prohibiting probation officers from carrying firearms or acting in a law enforcement capacity. The panel agreed with the trial court that the incompatibility of the Act with those Court objectives compelled a finding that the Act was unconstitutional. The panel rejected PANJ's argument that its collective bargaining agreement with the judiciary authorized arbitration of the Supreme Court's managerial prerogatives and the constitutionality of the Act. It also rejected PANJ's contention that the entire State judiciary should have recused itself to avoid the appearance of bias, holding that the doctrine of necessity required the state courts -- the only forum capable of hearing the matter -- to resolve the dispute.

The Supreme Court granted the State's and the PANJ's petitions for certification.

HELD: Because the Probation Officer Community Safety Unit Act compromises the independence of the judiciary and blurs the line between the role of our courts and law enforcement, the Court has no choice but to declare the Act unconstitutional and void.

1. The separation of powers doctrine is a bedrock principle of our federal and state constitutional forms of government. It is premised on the theory that government works best when each branch acts independently within its designated sphere, and does not attempt to gain dominance over another branch. Article VI, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the State Constitution provides that:

The Supreme Court shall make rules governing the administration of all courts in the State and, subject to law, the practice and procedure in all such courts.

The Court's administrative authority is far-reaching and encompasses the entire judicial structure as well as all aspects and incidents related to the justice system. Because their administrative rulemaking authority cannot be circumscribed by legislation, the Supreme Court and Chief Justice exercise exclusive and plenary power over the governance of the judiciary. (pp. 9-16)

2. This Court's constitutional mandate to make administrative rules governing the court system brings within its compass probation officers, who historically have been considered an "integral part" of the judiciary. In Passaic County Probation Officers' Ass'n v. County of Passaic, 73 N.J. 247 (1977), the Court held that the control of probation officers and of the whole statewide system of probation, seemingly entrusted to the Judiciary by the terms of the Constitution, cannot be in any way diluted or modified by legislation. As a matter of comity and commonsense, however, the Court has respected legislative enactments that have not directly conflicted or interfered with the operation of the judiciary. (pp. 16-19)

3. The 1929 Probation Act is essentially intact today in our contemporary statutes. Those statutes clearly establish that the probation department is under the authority and part of the judiciary. A probation officer's duties include preparing presentence investigation reports in criminal cases, furnishing criminal defendants with a statement of conditions of their probation and supervising them while on probation, and collecting payments from persons under their supervision as ordered by the court. This Court has steadfastly maintained that probation officers must avoid any perception of partisanship in conducting court business. In furtherance of that policy, probation officers have been prohibited from performing traditional police functions or affiliating with law enforcement organizations. AOC Directive No. 10-73 specifically barred probation officers from carrying weapons in the regular performance of their work. In 1994, the Court issued an administrative ruling upholding its long-standing policy prohibiting probation officers from being members of law enforcement organizations. The Court reasoned that any affiliation with law enforcement by probation officers would seriously compromise judicial independence. (pp. 19-26)

4. By authorizing probation officers to be armed and make arrests, the Act is fatally at odds with this Court's administrative rules governing probation. Furthermore, the Act commands both the Supreme Court and the Administrative Director of the Courts to collaborate in a legislative program in contravention of long-standing rules and directives. The Court cannot agree that allowing probation officers to carry guns and arrest those they supervise will not impair the essential integrity of the judicial branch. The Act requires the Court not only to reallocate judiciary personnel to the Community Safety Unit, but to abrogate its own policy directives that prohibit probation officers from carrying weapons and performing law enforcement functions. (pp. 26-32)

5. PANJ has argued throughout this case that the constitutionality of the Act should be decided not by the State's judiciary, but rather by an arbitrator or special master. PANJ has contended that its collective bargaining agreements with the judiciary require submission of the Act's constitutionality to an arbitrator. The arbitration agreement by its terms does not apply to the issue before the Court and, in any event, the constitutionality of a statute cannot be decided by an arbitrator. The PANJ maintains that because the State's judges cannot be dispassionate in resolving a matter of self-interest to the judiciary, an independent hearing officer should be chosen. The rule of necessity forbids the disqualification of the entire judiciary from hearing a case even if there is some perception that the result may be tinged by self-interest. As the ultimate state tribunal authorized to decide the constitutionality of legislation, the Court can only hope that the public understands that judges, to the extent humanly possible, interpret the Constitution fairly, fearlessly, and independently, even when the issue touches on the judiciary's institutional concerns. (pp. 32-34)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

Argued January 4, 2006

Probation officers are part of the judicial branch of government and perform many duties that are essential to the mission of our courts, including supervising probationers in criminal and juvenile cases. As an arm of the court, they are required to avoid any perception of favoring one side or another or of being in league with any party, particularly law enforcement. To that end, the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) has prohibited probation officers from carrying firearms, making arrests, or joining fraternal police associations.

On January 7, 2002, the Legislature enacted the Probation Officer Community Safety Unit Act (Act), L. 2001, c. 362 (codified at N.J.S.A. 2B:10A-1 to -3, 2C:39-6(c)(17)). The Act creates in the heart of the judiciary a law enforcement unit comprised of no less than two hundred probation officers, who are authorized to carry firearms and arrest probation violators. The Act directs that the New Jersey Supreme Court promulgate rules for this new armed unit within the State's judiciary, that probation officers assigned to the unit be trained by police authorities, and that the Administrative Director of the Courts report to the Legislature on the unit's effectiveness.

In this appeal, we must decide whether the Act interferes with this Court's exclusive constitutional authority over the administration of the courts under Article VI, Section 2, Paragraph 3 and Article VI, Section 7, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution, and thus infringes on the powers of a separate and independent branch of government in violation of Article III, Paragraph 1. In the spirit of comity, we have accommodated legislative enactments touching on court administration, provided those enactments are not antithetical to the judiciary's core goals. Because the Act fatally compromises the independence of the judiciary, and hopelessly blurs the line between the role of our courts and law enforcement, we have no choice but to declare the Act unconstitutional.

I. The Probation Officer Community Safety Unit Act

In a series of findings and declarations, the Legislature explained its reasons for enacting the Probation Officer Community Safety Unit Act:

a. The enforcement of probation sentences is crucial to the public safety;

b. Despite a drop in the overall crime rate, the number of dangerous and repeat offenders who are serving probation sentences has continued to rise in New Jersey;

c. The number of probationers who have violated the conditions of probation and have a warrant issued for their arrest has reached 15,000;

d. Probation officers working in the New Jersey state courts are not currently permitted ...

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