Lawmakers at Budget Hearing Quiz AG on Hot Legal Issues

John Reitmeyer | April 4, 2019 | Budget
Legislators zero in on bail reform, marijuana legalization, court actions against Trump administration and more

Credit: Office of Attorney General/Tim Larsen
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, center, addresses Assembly Budget Committee Wednesday.
It’s not often that lawmakers get to directly question New Jersey’s attorney general, so they used his annual appearance before the Assembly Budget Committee to explore several hot legal issues, among them bail reform, marijuana legalization, gun-violence policies and ongoing court action against the Trump administration.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal spoke to the committee for well over two hours yesterday as the process of reviewing Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2020 shifted yesterday to the phase where department heads come before lawmakers to justify their individual budget requests.

Grewal is not asking lawmakers to increase funding for the Department of Law and Public Safety in FY2020, something that went over well with the committee.

“We’re literally doing more with less,” he said.

“That’s something we always love to hear,” said chair Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex).

But it was the other legal issues that drew a good deal of their attention. And when officials from the state judiciary appeared before the same committee later in the day, some of the same issues came up.

‘From every angle,’ bail reform working

One of the first topics that lawmakers asked Grewal about was the state’s ongoing bail-reform initiative, which was launched in 2017, in part to de-emphasize the role of cash bail during the pretrial process. Concerns had been raised before the policy reforms were enacted about the potential for increased crime throughout the state, but Grewal said a report released by the judiciary earlier this week showed that even as jail populations are now way down there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in crime.

At the same time, he said, the highest-risk offenders can now be kept behind bars without any bail, thanks to the same criminal-justice reform.

“From every angle that I can look at, I think it’s working,” Grewal said.

The conversation shifted to marijuana and the ongoing discussions in the Legislature about legalizing its recreational use for adults over 21. While legislative leaders pulled back scheduled votes on a legalization bill last month, after it became clear the bill would not be passed in the Senate, the issue remains a top priority for Murphy and another attempt to pass it could come again later this year.

Grewal said his department is aware of the legalization effort and that many State Police troopers receive training to recognize when someone is under the influence of drugs, including marijuana. The same training is also being offered to officers from local police departments.

“From our perspective, we’ll be ready. We’re increasing training, trying to offer more classes,” Grewal said.

Retraining drug-sniffing dogs

The attorney general said drug-sniffing dogs are being trained differently in anticipation of the odor of burned marijuana no longer being legal grounds to search an adult suspect. Those dogs that have been trained to home in on marijuana can still be used in other ways, including in jails and schools where marijuana will still be illegal, he said.

One issue Grewal emphasized during his opening remarks was efforts that his department is taking to address gun violence, including prosecuting violent criminals and traffickers and maintaining a “robust background check system.”

Murphy’s budget proposal also calls for several fees related to firearms to be raised. They include the fee for a permit to purchase a gun, which would go from $2 to $50, and the fee for a separate purchaser identification card, which would be raised from $5 to $100, according to a budget analysis released by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services before yesterday’s hearing.

Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-Morris) asked Grewal if he sees gun owners who obtain their firearms legally as a threat to the community and suggested few legally obtained guns are used to commit crimes in New Jersey. “Most folks are looking to protect themselves or they’re sportsmen that hunt,” DiMaio said.

Grewal said that he has no problem with legal gun purchases. His department’s efforts have been focused on those who seek to evade the official background-check process, he said.

Raising gun fees

“Those fees haven’t been increased since 1966, I think, in some cases,” he added. “We’re trying to build out an automated system to expedite lawful gun (purchases) so that they can get their guns more quickly and so we can process those applications more quickly.”

DiMaio also challenged Grewal to explain his agency’s approach to illegal immigration, citing a recent murder in Jersey City where the person charged with committing the crime is alleged to have been in the country illegally after twice being deported. Some have criticized the Murphy administration for not being aggressive enough on efforts to counter illegal immigration, an area that is receiving a heavy focus from President Donald Trump. But Grewal pushed back against some of those assertions yesterday.

“That is not our job, to enforce the (federal) immigration laws,” the attorney general said. “We are not here to figure out what your status is or what your status isn’t. Our job as state law enforcement officers is to enforce the criminal laws of this state.”

“We enforce state criminal laws, we don’t give sanctuary to anyone,” he went on to say. “If you commit a crime, you go to jail.”

Lawmakers also challenged Grewal on lawsuits the department has filed against the Trump administration on other matters, including those related to the environment and the recent capping of the longstanding income-tax deduction for state and local taxes known as SALT.

Anti-Trump lawsuits

While no lawmaker asked the attorney general directly how much those lawsuits cost, Grewal said in many cases New Jersey is using in-house attorneys and working with other states to pool resources.

“A lot of this we don’t do alone. We have sister states who join us,” Grewal said. “We share experts and resources in our departments.”

And he suggested the state’s “federal-facing” legal efforts have largely been launched in response to questionable rulemaking changes attempted by the Trump administration.

“The way you challenge the rollback or changes in federal rulemaking is through the Administrative Procedures Act,” Grewal said. “These APA claims, historically, the federal government, in prior federal administrations, Democrat (and) Republican, had a 70 percent win rate.”

“This administration, it’s at less than 6 percent, which suggests to me that the rulemaking that’s being rolled back is being done in a way that is arbitrary and capricious,” he said.