The phrase “No good deed goes unpunished” is a caustic a commentary on the frequency with which good deeds backfire on those who offer them. The Honorable Jason Witcher, Cumberland County Municipal Court Judge, learned this lesson very well in recent days after trying to stop discriminatory trends against the Hispanic community. Shortly after this good deed, Judge Vedzmak claims that his position as municipal judge is in jeopardy.
As early as October 2022, Judge Vedzmak noticed that members of the Latino community who were assigned to the municipal court were treated differently than others. In particular, Hispanics overwhelmingly appeared in in-person court appearances, while other races appeared more evenly between in-person and virtual courts. Judge Wiedzmak has repeatedly tried to get court staff to correct the perceived scheduling bias, but to no avail.
Refusing to be a silent bystander to such blatant discrimination, he went on the record to say that what was happening was “the most discriminatory event I have ever been a part of in my entire career.”
With Judge Witcher’s power under threat, the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP and the Puerto Rican Action Committee of Southern New Jersey are demanding accountability and equal justice under the law. Judge Witcher deserves better for trying to right the wrong. The community deserves better, so members of the Latino community are treated fairly and equally as others.
Alarmingly, the potential removal of Judge Witcher, as one of the only judges of color currently sitting on the bench in Salem, Cumberland and Gloucester counties, threatens to create an all-white judicial system in the region. The result points to some responsibility for Governor Murphy, who recently failed to reappoint Judge Sandra Lopez, the first woman and first Hispanic to serve on the bench in Salem County.
The New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP and the Puerto Rican Action Committee of Southern New Jersey want to make it clear that a judge of color has not become a scapegoat for a systemic judicial system that deprives Latinos of their basic civil rights. Nor will we be shy about asking tough questions. Specifically, why is there no Hispanic or person of color on the bench in this region? Our communities deserve answers and we will not be turned away.
At this time, we are asking the governor to convene New Jersey’s civil rights organizations to discuss diversifying the bench across the state.
Richard Smith is president of the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP and a member of the NAACP National Board of Directors. Greg Zeff is the Legal Aid Chair of the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP and Ralph Padilla is the retired president and CEO of the Puerto Rican Action Committee of Southern New Jersey.