When the world witnessed Ray Rice striking his then fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator in March 2014, the national spotlight was on New Jersey to accelerate pending legislation related to domestic violence laws.
A bill introduced in the New Jersey Legislature soon after the incident would have quickly expanded the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act to include many classes of people, but contained language too broad to positively impact the victims it sought to protect and perhaps would have created administration problems for the courts.
Thankfully, Ruth Anne Robbins was reading and responding to what was written. A clinical professor of law at Rutgers Law School, Robbins with the Rutgers Domestic Violence Clinic, played a part in the act ultimately becoming law.
Well acquainted with the New Jersey statute, Robbins makes it integral to her first-year legal writing lesson plan.
“My 1L students’ spring briefs are written about a simulation focusing on what it means to be defined as a domestic violence victim,” says Robbins. “They scour that statute to determine, for example, who is covered and what it means legally to be dating, even further, what does it mean to be dating online?”
The problems Robbins’ envisioned happening if the bill was signed into law as written were too troubling not to take action.
“The bill would have allowed more people than ever to qualify for domestic violence restraining orders,” she says. “Possible scenarios could be next-door neighbors obtaining restraining orders against each other for overhanging tree branches or for their dogs barking too loudly.”
Robbins adds that individuals seeking restraining orders for matters like these would have clogged the family courts in a state where 80,000 domestic violence incidents are reported a year. With about 20 domestic violence cases listed on a court docket each day, courts in Camden County for instance, would be even more congested, leaving actual victims further from safer situations.
With then Rutgers Law clinic fellow Travis Stewart ’14 and Jessica Miles, a clinical professor at Seton Hall University School of Law, Robbins met with New Jersey Senator Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth). As a group they talked about how similar statute amendments had impacted other states and what was at stake should the bill move forward. Shortly thereafter Senator Beck requested that Robbins and colleagues’ provide their recommendations to redraft the bill.
Because of this collaborative effort, on Nov. 9, 2015 the Sexual Assault Survivor Protection Act became law in New Jersey, allowing victims of sexual-related acts, who were not dating their attackers, to access the courts and file for stay-away restraining orders without being required to first file criminal charges. The act also expands sexual assault coverage to include inappropriate texting and online activities, highly prevalent behaviors that have gone unchecked in a digital society.
“The three of us who met with Senator Beck represented domestic violence clinics at two law schools. We had nothing to gain, just our expertise to offer, for seeing problems through a balanced perspective,” says Robbins. “We study the statutes that we teach our students. This is how higher education can play a larger part in assisting the Legislature.”
Robbins says the Sexual Assault Survivor Protection Act becoming law is really the accomplishment of the legislators. “Our thanks goes to Senator Beck, who was one of the three legislators who led this bipartisan effort along with Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle and Senator Nellie Pou. Her concern for victims led this effort and we’re grateful she took the time to listen to us and include us in the process.”