On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. MER-L-2091-05.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yannotti, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued telephonically May 9, 2006
Before Judges Fall, Yannotti and Newman.
Plaintiffs Warren County Bar Association (Association) and Kevin M. Hahn, a resident and taxpayer of Warren County, commenced this action against the Warren County Board of Chosen Freeholders (Board) seeking an order requiring the Board to provide "safe, healthful and suitable courtrooms and facilities" in the County in accordance with standards that the court may deem "appropriate and necessary for the proper administration of justice." Plaintiffs appeal from an order entered on September 9, 2005 dismissing their complaint for failure state a claim upon which relief can be granted. We affirm.
The present court facilities in Warren County were constructed in or about 1825 and were last expanded in or around 1960. Since 1960, the population of the County has grown from about 63,000 to 110,000. According to plaintiffs, the court facilities in the County are "grossly overcrowded and in a state of disrepair." Plaintiffs allege that the court facilities are "unsafe and unhealthy" and "grossly impair the ability of the judiciary, and other employees of Warren County, to perform their functions."
Plaintiffs contend that, over the years, the Board has been made aware of the "insufficiency, lack of suitability and the overcrowded and unsafe conditions" of the court facilities. In or about 2000, the Board retained the services of a consultant to evaluate the court facilities and make recommendations to ensure that the facilities were suitable and safe. According to plaintiffs, the consultants determined that the court facilities were inefficient, overcrowded and lacked adequate security and parking. The consultants issued a report dated March 20, 2002, recommending improvements to the facilities and suggested several alternatives, from expansion and renovation of the existing courthouse, to construction of a new court house.
Plaintiffs further allege that, at or about the same time, the Assignment Judge for the vicinage which includes Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren Counties formed a committee to review the consultant's report and make recommendations to the Board concerning the court facilities. According to the complaint, the committee thereafter communicated its recommendations to the Board but the Board "failed to act on any recommendation and has failed to make any improvements to the Warren County Courthouse, and in particular, the judicial facilities."
Plaintiffs claim that the County's court facilities fail to provide proper security as required by the State judicial system; do not provide for the proper separation of prisoners from the general public and separation of adult prisoners from juvenile prisoners; fail to provide proper facilities where members of the Bar may consult with their clients in a manner that would protect the attorney-client privilege; and do not provide facilities where members of the Bar may consult with each other. The complaint states:
The Board of Chosen Freeholders has pursued and continues to pursue a policy of purporting to provide proper and adequate judicial facilities, but these efforts have been makeshift, temporary and are inadequate to rectify the continuing problems as established by the County's own retained experts.
Plaintiffs assert that the maintenance and perpetuation of the present conditions constitute a "grossly improper and unlawful interference with the efficient functioning of the judiciary and other agencies" in the County. Plaintiffs allege that the Board's failure to meet its obligation under N.J.S.A. 2B:6-1(b) to provide "suitable" facilities for courts has placed an "undue and improper burden" upon the judiciary. Plaintiffs further allege that the Board's failure to adopt and implement plans for the construction of courtrooms and related facilities is arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable, an abuse of discretion and otherwise violates the Board's obligation "pursuant to law."
The matter was transferred to the Mercer vicinage and on August 23, 2005, the Board moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. R. 4:6-2(e). Judge Linda R. Feinberg heard argument on September 9, 2005 and thereafter filed an opinion and order dismissing the complaint.
In her opinion, Judge Feinberg concluded that plaintiffs could not maintain a cause of action under N.J.S.A. 2B:6-1(b) to compel the Board to meet its statutory obligation to provide "suitable" facilities for the courts. The judge further determined that under R. 1:33-4, responsibility to assess and evaluate the suitability of court facilities had been conferred upon the Assignment Judge for the respective vicinage. Moreover, under R. 1:33-9, disputes between the governing body of a county and the Assignment Judge "concerning the location, size, or other physical characteristics of courtrooms, chambers, office space or related facilities" must be resolved, "at the request of either party," by arbitration. Judge Feinberg concluded that an interpretation of N.J.S.A. 2B:6-1(b) that would allow a taxpayer or association to maintain a private right of action to enforce a county's obligation to provide "suitable" facilities for the courts would conflict with the allocation of responsibility and dispute resolution procedures mandated by the Supreme Court in the court rules.
Judge Feinberg also determined that plaintiffs' action was an action for mandamus. However, the judge determined that such relief was not a proper remedy in this case because plaintiffs were not seeking to compel specific action of a ministerial nature but were instead seeking to compel the Board to exercise its discretion.
The judge therefore dismissed the action but "strongly" encouraged the Assignment Judge and Board to meet in the ensuing 30 days in an effort to resolve the issues raised by plaintiffs. The judge added, "In the absence of an agreement or plan of action, the court suggests that the procedures adopted by the Supreme Court to resolve these kinds of disputes be employed. In the interest of justice and the public, that is clearly the most appropriate course of action."
We were advised at oral argument that the Assignment Judge for the Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren vicinage has held meetings with representatives of the Board. There has been no resolution of the issues raised by plaintiffs and neither the Assignment Judge ...