Amicus BriefNJISJ has endeavored to to weigh in on important cases at the appellate level and develop a more expansive program to monitor state and federal appellate dockets. Below are examples of recent cases in which NJISJ has participated.
In re Ronald C. Kollman, Jr., Petition for Expungement
On July 9, 2012, the New Jersey Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, overturned the denial of Ronald Kollman’s petition for expungement and established a reading of the expungement statute that will assist individuals with criminal records to successfully reenter society. The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the ACLU-NJ jointly filed a brief as amicus curiae in support of Mr. Kollman’s position, arguing, among other things, that the trial court substituted its judgment for the Legislature’s and inappropriately considered conduct not proven. The trial court had denied Mr. Kollman’s petition despite extensive evidence, including 21 letters of support from community members and employers, that he had turned his life around since being convicted. This decision clearly establishes that trial courts cannot deny expungements because of broad concerns about the type of criminal offense. Instead, it must balance the specific facts of the each case and give proper weight to an individual’s evidence of rehabilitation.
State of New Jersey in the Interest of V.A– A juvenile waiver case
In V.A., the Institute serves as co-counsel with the Juvenile Law Center and the Urban Legal Clinic at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, representing 24 amici curiae challenging the New Jersey Appellate Division’s interpretation and application of the juvenile waiver statute and arguing that the statute, as applied, violates the United States and New Jersey Constitutions.
State vs. JG
The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey jointly filed a brief as amicus curiae before the New Jersey Supreme Court in State v. J.G. J.G., the father of T.G., was incarcerated six months after T.G.’s birth. While J.G. was still incarcerated, T.G.’s mother lost custody of T.G. and DYFS brought an action to terminate the parental rights of both parents. Shortly before trial, the mother voluntarily surrendered her parental rights, and the trial commenced solely against J.G., who was released from prison after the trial, but before the trial judge’s written decision denying the petition for termination of J.G.’s parental rights to T.G. Applying the four-pronged statutory “best interests” standard for terminating parental rights, the trial judge found that DYFS failed to establish the statutory bases for termination. The Appellate Division reversed, finding “as a matter of law” that all four prongs of N.J.S.A. 30:4C-15.1(a) were satisfied, and terminating the parental rights of J.G.
Amici first argue that the Appellate Division’s decision terminating J.G.’s parental rights is inconsistent with the constitutionally required burden of proof and the applicable standard of review. The “best interests” standard requires particularized evidence that establishes by clear and convincing proof that termination of parental right is necessary and unavoidable to avoid serious harm to the child. The Appellate Division instead relied on generalizations and presumptions about the fitness of J.G. as a previously incarcerated parent. Its findings “as a matter of law” on each of the statutory criteria improperly substituted its evidentiary findings for that of the trial judge.
Second, the Appellate Division effectively relieved DYFS of its substantive duty under both federal and state law to make reasonable efforts to provide appropriate services to facilitate reunification before seeking to terminate parental rights. DYFS failed to make reasonably diligent efforts to provide J.G. with appropriate services before terminating his parental rights. Under New Jersey law, this duty applies to all parents, including incarcerated, non-custodial parents like J.G. A robust duty to preserve the family is not just legally mandated; it is sound public policy, as the number of incarcerated parents has increased dramatically over the last three decades leading to devastating consequences for families, children, and society. Maintaining the family bond is a doubly beneficial “win-win”: children of the incarcerated fare better and their formerly incarcerated parents are more likely to reenter society successfully.
Finally, amici argue that DYFS’s duty to make reasonable efforts should be particularized to clearly establish its requirement to provide additional support to formerly incarcerated parents such as J.G. before seeking to terminate their parental rights. Other jurisdictions have particularized the duties of their child welfare systems in working with incarcerated parents, and the state of New Jersey should follow suit to ensure that termination determinations are based on findings of fact regarding the individualized record in the case at hand, as opposed to generalized conclusions of law. Given the increase in incarceration rates and resulting collateral consequences, it is especially important that DYFS establish standard procedures clarifying the procedural burden to produce particularized evidence with respect to the reasonable efforts mandate. NJISJ and ACLU-NJ urge the Supreme Court to reverse the Appellate Division’s decision terminating the parental rights of J.G., and remand the matter to the Family Court.