NJ Judge Forced To Quit For Airing Bias Concerns, Suit Says

By Jake Maher | June 28, 2023, 3:51 PM EDT ·

A New Jersey municipal judge suffered retaliation in the form of lost disability accommodation and was forced to resign after he made widely publicized allegations that local courts discriminated against Hispanic defendants, the jurist alleges in a new lawsuit.

Judge Jason Witcher of the Millville Municipal Court, or MMC, sued the state of New Jersey and the Administrative Office of the Courts in Mercer County Court on June 23 over several alleged violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, including that the state "constructively discharged" him from his judgeship.

The alleged retaliation by the state stems from claims he made that the MMC discriminated against defendants with Hispanic-sounding last names by disproportionately scheduling them for in-person court dates, when there is an interpreter present, rather than for virtual court dates.

He said he observed this pattern all throughout late 2022 and ultimately conducted an informal poll in a court session on Dec. 5, asking Hispanic defendants if they knew they had the option to appear virtually. Most of the Hispanic defendants allegedly did not know they could appear virtually.

"Plaintiff apologized to each litigant who was not given the option to appear virtually like litigants who did not have Hispanic surnames," Judge Witcher wrote. "Plaintiff stated on the record that what occurred in court that day was the most discriminatory thing he had ever been part of in his entire life."

The incident was reported in an NJ.com article, which Judge Wtcher said in the complaint was the first time the defendants learned about his bias allegations.

Days after the Dec. 5 court date, Judge Witcher alleged, the court system revoked an accommodation he had for his Crohn's disease, under which he conducted hearings virtually when he was having a flare-up. The judiciary instead ordered him to conduct all court sessions in person from that point on.

Judge Witcher alleged that he went to a court session on Feb. 8, 2023, during a Crohn's disease flare-up in order to comply with the new requirement. During that session, he said he suffered three "seizure-like responses," falling to the floor and experiencing elevated blood pressure and heart rate.

"The combination of stress from the retaliation and monitoring combined with the Crohn's flare up caused what appeared to be seizure-like activity," Judge Witcher wrote.

Judge Witcher alleged he was temporarily suspended after the episode, and although he returned to work afterward, he said he submitted his resignation effective Aug. 1 in order to "protect his health and prevent further damage to his reputation."

The state judiciary investigated Judge Witcher's allegations and published a report in February that partially corroborated them and partially rejected them.

In a statewide review in late 2022 the judiciary did not find that Hispanic defendants were scheduled for in-person court more often than for virtual court, finding rather that they were more likely to be scheduled virtually. The report did not find evidence of a concerted effort by the MMC to schedule defendants differently based on whether their last names sounded Hispanic, either.

The judiciary also found that the majority of people scheduled for court in-person in Millville on Dec. 5 were scheduled according to the state Supreme Court's orders, which required litigants in more serious cases to appear in person.

However, the review did corroborate Judge Witcher's observation, specific to the MMC, that Hispanic defendants were more heavily represented in in-person sessions, where they made up 24% of defendants, than in virtual sessions, where they made up 17% of defendants in late 2022.

A representative for Judge Witcher did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. A spokesman for the New Jersey judiciary declined to comment.

Judge Witcher is represented by Drake P. Bearden Jr. of Javerbaum Wurgaft Hicks Kahn Wikstrom & Sinins PC.

Attorney information for the state of New Jersey and Administrative Office of the Courts was not immediately available.

The case is Judge Jason Witcher v. State of New Jersey et al., case number MER-L-001208-23, in the Superior Court of New Jersey for Mercer County.

--Editing by Jill Coffey.

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