New Jersey Judge Strikes Down License Suspension Law

January 6, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

measure of sanity now leavens New Jersey’s public policy on the enforcement of child support delinquencies (New Jersey Law Journal, 1/2/19).  State Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson has struck down as violating the state’s constitution that portion of a New Jersey statute mandating automatic driver’s license suspension in all cases in which “a child support arrearage equals or exceeds the amount of child support payable for six months or court-ordered health care coverage for the child is not provided for six months.”

In those cases, child support obligors in the Garden State were afforded neither notice of the state’s action against them nor a hearing.  To say the least, that’s an astonishing breach of the most basic tenets of due process of law, a fact Judge Jacobson explicitly noted.  She also wrote in her 187-page opinion that the 1988 law violated the principle of “fundamental fairness.” 

She’s right on both counts.  The idea that a state can or should deprive a person of one of the most basic necessities of modern life without providing an opportunity to be heard and prove, if the facts support it, the inability to pay, is obviously at odds with constitutional precepts.

She explained that “both due process and fundamental fairness require courts to provide counsel to indigent obligors at any hearing at which a hearing officer may recommend a driver’s license suspension to a court, or at any hearing when the family court itself is considering a driver’s license suspension.”

Judge Jacobson issued an injunction against enforcement of the law and gave the state 120 days to establish policies that afford delinquent obligors an opportunity to be heard.

The linked-to article is a good one.  The editors of the Law Journal clearly know the basics about child support and the process of enforcement.

Delinquency is concentrated among low income parents with support obligations…

We find that Judge Jacobson’s ruling addresses an important public problem. We hope that the governor, attorney general, and the Division of Family Development will work diligently and earnestly to produce the new regulations which the court has granted 120 days to formulate. Judge Jacobson declined to make her order retroactive. Thousands of parents—especially low income—doubtless remain stranded without driving privileges. Their status is something which the Legislature can and should address.  

Indeed.  The federal Office of Child Support Administration has long known and stated that some 63% of child support obligors behind on their payments report earnings of less than $10,000 per year.  The heavy weight of draconian enforcement methods falls most heavily on those least able to bear it.

Meanwhile, Judge Jacobson cited some pithy facts about the impact of driver’s license suspension.

In her comprehensive opinion, Judge Jacobson took note of a 2006 study by the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy with the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission—“Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness.” The report “found that 42 percent of individuals who had their licenses suspended lost jobs as a result of the suspension, 45 percent of those who lost jobs could not find another job, and 88% of those that were able to find another job reported a decrease in income.” Jacobson wrote that “[e]ven though most of the Report’s findings addressed license suspensions in general and did not focus on child support-related suspensions, it is reasonable to assume that the affected dependents likely included many children who are the subject of child support orders, and the very individuals that the automatic license suspensions were intended to benefit.” The Bloustein/MCV report also found that in low income areas “child support suspension rates for drivers…were ten times higher than the statewide average.”

In other words, what child support reform advocates have been saying for decades is the truth – suspending drivers’ licenses makes paying child support much harder.  It acts to defeat the very end the state claims to be pursuing – money to support children.  That the state legislature did so in such a patently unconstitutional manner was outrageous in 1988 when the law was passed and has remained so ever since.

The late 80s of course were the heyday of the notion that fathers had no interest in their children and sought any way possible to avoid supporting them.  That of course is so much bunk and has been proven to be so many times by scrupulous social science.  But still public policies based on exactly that willful misunderstanding of fathers and their attachment to their children (and vice versa) continues to inform public policy regarding family law.

Kudos to Judge Jacobson.  She’s struck a much-needed blow for sanity in the public policy that governs child support and its enforcement.

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