(TRENTON) – Legislation Sponsored by Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Joseph Lagana, and Raj Mukherji establishing the Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner in, but not of, the Department of Health to replace the Office of the State Medical Examiner in the Department of Law and Public Safety cleared two Assembly panels on Thursday.
The bill (A-1709), designated as the “Revised State Medical Examiner Act,” abolishes the existing Office of the State Medical Examiner in the Department of Law and Public Safety and transfers all of its functions, powers, and duties to the newly established Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner.
“This bill will provide much needed reformation to the Medical Examiner system,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “A well-equipped staff as well as oversight of county and intercounty Medical Examiner offices will provide more efficient assistance to mourning families in our state. It’s long overdue, and our forensic investigatory apparatus would have the much needed independence from the judicial system it deserves.”
The bill provides that the Chief State Medical Examiner is to report directly to the Commissioner of Health and is to function independently within the Department of Health with respect to the medical examiner system and the conducting of medicolegal death investigations.
Under the bill, the Chief State Medical Examiner is required to adopt certain rules and regulations including the establishment of uniform procedures for conducting medicolegal death investigations, and minimum performance and operating standards for, and standards of professional conduct for personnel of, the Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner and the office of each county or intercounty medical examiner.
The Chief State Medical Examiner will be provided with direct supervision and oversight authority over any medical examiner facility operating under State jurisdiction. In addition, the Chief State Medical Examiner is responsible for ensuring that the entire medical examiner system is adequately equipped and staffed to deliver medicolegal death investigation services throughout the State, including the establishment of advisory standards of funding for staff, equipment, and facilities for all medical examiner offices. The Chief State Medical Examiner has authorization, according to the sponsors, to intervene in and assume control over any ongoing medicolegal death investigation in the State, regardless of whether the Chief State Medical Examiner has received permission from, or a request for intervention by, a county or an intercounty medical examiner performing the investigation.
“This bill spells out exactly how medicolegal investigations, such as autopsies, should be performed,” said Lagana (D-Bergen/Passaic). “By putting these protocols in place state-wide, we will be able to iron out any current issues and create a well-practiced and well-organized Medical Examiner system for our state.”
This legislation requires each county to establish and maintain an office of the county medical examiner, and permits the governing bodies of two or more counties to jointly establish and maintain an intercounty medical examiner office. Each county or intercounty medical examiner office will continue to be directed by a county or intercounty medical examiner, who will be appointed by the governing body of the county or counties for a term of five years.
“By putting oversight of forensic pathologists under the Department of Health instead of the state’s top prosecutor, we are creating a more unified system and removing any perception of prosecutorial influence,” said Mukherji (D-Hudson). “I applaud Attorney General Grewal for supporting this rationale.”
The bill also establishes a Medical Examiner Review Team comprised of seven members including the Commissioner of Health, the Commissioner of Human Services, the Attorney General, the Chief State Medical Examiner, and three public members appointed by the Governor. This team must meet at least once annually and must, in conjunction with the Medical Examiner Review Team, issue an annual report made available to the public.
This legislation comes amid articles written by the Star Ledger, which has covered New Jersey’s Medical Examiner offices along with flaws in the system.
The measure passed both the Health and Senior Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee.