Article by Peter H. Lederman, Esq.
Published in the New Jersey Law Journal
The present municipal court system is structurally flawed; some of its problems can best be explained by analogy with the force of gravity.
In the September 4, 2014 Edition of the New Jersey Law Journal, I wrote about the need to complete the unification of our New Jersey Court system, begun in 1947, by finally adding the Municipal Court system into our Superior Court, with full time Prosecutors, Judges and courts. I suggested that vast improvement in providing fair and impartial resolution of minor criminal and motor vehicle complaints that could be realized with unification. (read the September article: Whither Municipal Courts? Why we should consider incorporating them into a unified system)
The present Municipal Court system only functions as a result of the efforts of dedicated Judges, Prosecutors, Public Defenders and yes, defense attorneys. Judges labor to resolve massive caseloads under the scrutiny of Presiding Judges, Assignment Judges and AOC representatives. They preside over sessions that go late into the night, addressing domestic violence complaints and requests for Search Warrants to obtain blood samples in DWI cases at all hours of the night. The system however, is structurally flawed. Some of these problems can best be explained by analogy with gravity, the force that holds our physical world together.
Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation postulates in part, that the gravitational force of two bodies of mass is directly proportional to the product of their masses. Even for those not schooled in celestial mechanics (which my old friend suggested is the study of “heavenly bodies “ ) there seems to be an obvious order dictating how planets, comets, stars, even whole solar systems move predictably, as if by direction of a grand architect of the universe. While Newton’s Law aspires to explain and predict the movement of objects in the physical world, understanding of the gravity pushing and pulling the orbit and arc of dispute resolution in the Municipal Court world, can explain the need for unification.
The gravitational tug of local elected officials, Mayors, Councilmen and women, who appoint Judges, Prosecutors and Public Defenders is undeniable. They are the suns around which orbits of planets, large and small revolve. There are of course, larger forces, the black holes, brilliant comets and asteroids which influence planetary movement inside this system. They are County political leaders, officials elected to higher county and state offices. Their gravitational pull can effect an appointment or worse, the failure to reappoint a Judge, Prosecutor or Public defender.
Not to be naïve, different perceived interests are going to factor into every decision made by an elected official in a democratic society. Admittedly, politics and decisions effected by politics are a fundamental part of judicial appointments at every level of law. However, the force of gravity at the Municipal Court level is more profound. In a system where over six million complaints involving “ordinary people” are resolved each year, we should not be surprised that decisions arise from this gravity.
And just as a new Unified Theory was necessary to explain the cosmos, so we need a unified court to make this system truly functional, sixty seven years after it was created. If you would forgive further analogy with gravity and physics, let me suggestwhy a unified court system is necessary.
Municipal Court Judges, Prosecutors and Public Defenders are appointed by the local governing body (unless the court is a joint court, in which case appointment is by the Governor ). Despite our belief in “separation of powers” the gravity between court, town administration and council is just too strong. The thought that courts are expected to act as profit centers for towns, is taken for granted, especially in these days when towns are seeking revenue from all possible sources. Whether implied or express, every Judge is aware of the costs to run his court as well as the revenue thrown off to the town. At the very least, there is a gravitational pull on the court to produce revenue, with an understanding of what will happen if expectations are not met. Obviously, if there are no fines, there is no revenue. Fines cannot be imposed unless people are found guilty. And, nobody can be found guilty unless an Officer or Trooper makes a complaint in the first place.
It should be remembered that the parties involved, Judge, Prosecutor and Public Defender, are employees of the town. Their paychecks, benefits, their very jobs all derive from the same employer. This simple fact should be cause for concern. The appearance of potential conflict seems obvious. Any defendant entering this environment, must at least have some concern that the deck might be stacked against them.
This apprehension, might be enforced when the defendant realizes that the court shares a common structure with the local police department, in what are sometimes referred to as “justice complexes”. Can a defendant expect a fair and impartial resolution of complaints against him when the court and police department are under the same roof? And of course, there is the natural familiarity which arises over the years when the same officers repeatedly appear before the court. Even the security provided the court comes from the same police department issuing complaints against defendants. Familiarity breeds relationships as a result of “working together” with officers. One must ask how a Judge can be detached when these relationships have developed over the years.
These same police officers also enjoy relationships with elected officials. Furthermore, they do not need to get reappointed periodically, as to Judges, Prosecutors and Public Defenders. Familiarity with elected officials and job security, allows officers to exert influence upon local courts. Officers find their way into chambers and court administrator offices. Judges find their way into police operation areas. Sometimes it appearance police and the court are one and the same.
There are other gravitational forces affecting the court. Consider the Prosecutor, who is an official elected to higher statewide office. A Judge could very well perceive the need for a prosecutor’s support when seeking appointment to other municipal or even higher courts. Gravity could affect the way the Judge deals that Prosecutor with an eye to future appointments.
Fortunately, many dedicated judges, prosecutors and public defenders act in a way that is beyond reproach. It is only the gravitational pull between the different parties which causes the institution to often provide less than hoped for results.Unification of courts would hopefully eliminate these problems and create a new, more perfect court system.