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End Discriminatory Judicial Practices, Diversify the Bench

By Richard Smith, Gregg Zeff, and Ralph Padilla - December 16, 2022


The phrase “No good deed goes unpunished” is a scathing commentary on the frequency with which acts of kindness backfire on those who offer them. The Honorable Jason Witcher, a municipal court judge in Cumberland County, has learned this lesson all too well in recent days after trying to stop discriminatory trends against the Latino community. Shortly after this good deed, Judge Witcher claims his job as a municipal judge was threatened.


As early as October 2022, Judge Witcher noticed that Latino community members who were scheduled for municipal court were being treated differently than others. Specifically, Latinos overwhelmingly appeared for court in-person while other races appeared more evenly between in-person and virtual court appearances. Judge Witcher tried on more than one occasion to get court staff to correct the perceived scheduling bias but to no avail.


Refusing to be a silent bystander to such obvious discrimination, went on the record and stating that what appeared to be happening was “the most discriminatory event I have ever been a part of in my entire career”.


With Judge Witcher’s position of authority at-risk, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference and the Puerto Rican Action Committee of Southern NJ demand accountability and equal justice under the law. Judge Witcher deserves better for trying to right a wrong. The community deserves better so members of the Latino community are treated fairly and equally as others.


Alarmingly, as one of the only judges of color currently sitting on the bench in Salem, Cumberland, and Gloucester counties, Judge Witcher’s potential removal risks creating an all-white judiciary in this region. Such an outcome points some responsibility to Governor Murphy, who failed to re-appoint Judge Sandra Lopez recently, the first woman and first person from the Latino community to serve on the bench in Salem County.


The NAACP New Jersey State Conference and the Puerto Rican Action Committee of Southern NJ seek to make clear that a judge of color is not made the scapegoat for a systemic court system depriving Latinos of their basic civil rights. Nor will we shy from asking tough questions. In particular, why is there no Latino or person of color representation on the bench in this region? Our communities deserve answers and we will not be dismissed.


At this time, we implore the Governor to bring New Jersey civil rights organizations to a meeting to discuss diversifying the bench statewide.

 

Richard Smith is the President of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference and a Member of the NAACP National Board of Directors.

Gregg Zeff is the Legal Redress Chair of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference.

Ralph Padilla is the Ret. Chief & CEO of Puerto Rican Action Committee of Southern NJ.



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