Hillside seeks to decrease number of municipal judges, request denied

HILLSIDE, NJ — When the Hillside government recently attempted to decrease the number of municipal judges from two to one, Assignment Judge Karen M. Cassidy did not grant approval, saying in her decision that the Hillside Municipal Court’s plan to do so lacked the precise information needed to justify such a move.

In a letter to township attorney Ellen Michelle Harris dated Friday, July 9, Cassidy gave multiple reasons for turning the request down for Hillside to proceed with just Judge Marvin T. Braker.

Cassidy pointed out in her letter that the “increased use of technology” was not defined. “As your court staff knows, the courts have systems in place, such as the online dispute resolution system and plea by mail,” she said. “Your recommendation to increase the number of cases per session is vague and does not indicate how many additional sessions will be added. Any increase in these areas requires additional court staffing, prosecutors and public defenders. The adjustment of bench hours does not specify the time periods.

“The implementation of a text reminder program does not specify what program will be utilized,” she continued. “Since your court and the entire township is closed to the public, we do not know, nor did you provide information, as to how in-person trial requests are being handled. As a result, I cannot determine whether one judge could handle all these responsibilities, as opposed to having two judges, especially with the enormity of the backlog your court is facing.”

Cassidy said in her letter that, as the pandemic begins to lift and courts start to reopen, no specifics were provided as to how this would affect Hillside’s court and staff. She added that, historically, the Hillside Municipal Court has been functioning with two judges, and to reduce the number to one judge at a time when the courts are in flux was not appropriate.

Instead, Cassidy said she would see how the year went before she reduced the number of judges from two to one, adding that the Hillside government has two options — keep Judge Seth Dombeck as a holdover judge or appoint a temporary judge for a one-year term, which she would approve in accordance with the law. The need for a continued two-judge bench would be revisited once the temporary judge’s term ended, this time next year, or earlier if the situation warranted.

Both Harris and Dombeck declined to comment on the matter, but Councilwoman at large and mayoral candidate Nancy Mondella said she agreed with the decision.

“Coming out of a pandemic, our building is still not open,” Mondella said on Tuesday, July 27. “I don’t know if other municipality courts are open; I’m not sure. But our building isn’t open, and our courts are not face-to-face as yet. So we do need two judges to help clean up this backlog. I was happy with the decision.”

Neither Braker nor Hillside Mayor Dahlia Vertreese responded with a comment on the matter by press time.