Attorney General Matt Platkin called it "disappointing, disheartening, and unacceptable" that anyone would face discrimination from a public entity. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
Municipal court officials in Millville regularly scheduled litigants who they believe spoke Spanish to appear during in-person court proceedings instead of virtually, a discriminatory practice that harmed litigants who court officials believed were Hispanic or Latino, state Attorney General Matt Platkin said in a civil rights complaint filed Tuesday.
The move comes eight months after a judge in the Cumberland County city first went public with allegations that Millville was forcing Spanish-speaking people to attend in-person court hearings while allowing others to appear virtually.
The complaint from Platkin’s office also follows a February report from New Jersey Courts that found “no direct evidence” that Millville court officials were denying individual defendants the opportunity to appear for court virtually because they had Hispanic/Latino-sounding surnames.
“That anyone in the City of Millville had to face discrimination from any public entity is disappointing, disheartening, and unacceptable,” Platkin said in a statement. “Such practices only serve to erode the public’s trust. New Jersey is committed to eliminating discrimination, no matter where it occurs.”
Spokespeople for Millville and New Jersey Courts declined to comment.
According to Platkin’s complaint, from June 13, 2022 through December 2022, Millville municipal court defendants with Hispanic surnames were almost twice as likely as defendants with non-Hispanic surnames to be scheduled for in-person court appearances. During that time period, about 44% of defendants with Hispanic surnames were scheduled in person, compared to about 31% of defendants with non-Hispanic surnames, the complaint says.
June 2022 is when Millville’s courts stopped hosting most of their hearings virtually following two years of COVID-related closures. December 2022 is when the Millville judge went public with his allegations of discrimination.
“Millville’s discriminatory scheduling practices harmed litigants who were or were perceived to be Hispanic or Latinx/e by requiring them to appear for court in person, which in turn required these litigants to take additional time off work, incur additional travel expenses, and arrange childcare. Millville’s discriminatory practices are also particularly harmful because they risk undermining public trust in the judiciary,” the complaint reads.
After Millville’s courts partially reopened to the public in June 2022, it largely held in-person hearings on Mondays and virtual hearings on Wednesdays, according to Platkin’s complaint. The court had for at least a decade prior scheduled a Spanish-speaking interpreter to appear for Monday hearings, the complaint says.
Millville could have utilized a virtual interpreting service called Language Line but rarely did so, according to the complaint.
“Public trust depends on the promise that our public institutions will treat all people equally. Discrimination undermines that promise, and it violates our civil rights laws,” Sundeep Iyer, the civil rights division director, said in a statement. “The complaint we are announcing today reflects our ongoing commitment to ensuring that our institutions of public trust treat all New Jerseyans fairly and equally.”
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