Anyone fortunate enough to have visited downtown Stewart, Florida probably had the misfortune of passing through what is known as the “Confusion Corner” in the center of town. The round-about, described by one writer as, the most confusing intersection a driver could imagine, is where eight different streets, including two state highways come together. Besides busy vehicular traffic, tracks for regular train traffic, run through the same circle. The writer relates telling out of town visitors to just “close their eyes and floor it” when negotiating the circle for the first time.
After implementing various Orders dealing with the operation of New Jersey courts during the Covid pandemic, the Supreme Court issued its most recent direction on October 27, 2022. The Order essentially restored in person appearances for certain matters previously conducted on virtual platforms established when Covid made in person appearances impractical and dangerous. The Order however, provided little direction for the municipal courts, essentially allowing them to proceed at their discretion, with virtual, in person or some hybrid type of proceedings. In turn this has created a “Confusion Corner” where policies differ from county to county and town to town.
I don’t know whether the virtual system came into existence in response to the unexpected Covid emergency or if it had been designed pre-Covid to qualitatively improve the municipal court system after technology became widely available. For whatever reason, courts picked up virtually where they had left off in person, after the worst days of Covid.
Any transition to something new and radically different will be difficult. As with “Super Storm Sandy,” business as usual in municipal courts was disrupted by an unexpected, unprecedented event changing the way court had been conducted for as long as we could remember. After the initial disruption, Courts, Prosecutors, Administrators and Defendants acclimated to the new system, some more easily than others.
Over the course of this experience, some short comings were realized with the virtual court system. Many of them were addressed and resolved. At the same time, it became abundantly clear that virtual municipal courts allowed defense attorneys to be much more effective and efficient in handling their cases. For their part, defense attorneys realized that they could improve the quality of their work as well as the quality of their personal lives. They also recognized an improvement in their clients’ experience dealing with the municipal court system.
As an example, I was recently required to appear for a dwi status conference in an Ocean County municipal court which started at 9am. Another municipal court status conference in Hunterdon County was scheduled for 9:30. Both appearances were virtual. It would have been difficult at the very least, to make both of appearances, if in person appearances had been required.
As it turned out, I was able to speak with other clients, review emails and review a Body Worn Camera video recording, while I was waiting to conference with the Prosecutor in the Ocean County matter. When the first appearance concluded, I then “moved” to my next court appearance by simply switching screens. This was accomplished with a key stroke on a Zoom link!
After an unexpected resolution was reached in the second matter, I was able to speak with my client to discuss the proposed resolution, which in turn lead to his virtual plea a few minutes later. Once both matters were resolved, I then was able to “meet” with another client, virtually reviewing discovery in their case.
A great deal was accomplished in several hours, which otherwise would have been spent waiting in courts and on the road. I wish I could say that the freed-up time allowed me to get in 9 holes (it was too cold!). But the use of technology created opportunities to use my time as was needed or desired. I could help more clients and just do better work because of the additional time allowed.
Time indeed, is the most valuable asset, both in our professional and personal lives. The same goes for our clients and others such as witnesses who may need to appear in court. Being efficient and effective simply makes our practices and lives better.
As the pandemic ebbed (but did not disappear) the Supreme Court provided its most recent Order on October 22, 2022. The content of the Order essentially allows courts to decide for themselves, whether to continue with virtual proceedings, return to in person appearances or some combination of the two. No justification for the court’s choice is required. No reflection on the advantages or disadvantages of in person or virtual appearances is required. There is no unified approach across the system. The Order is permissive in nature and chaotic in practice.
Some courts have required all court appearances to be in person with certain types of cases, whether for status conferences, case management or resolution discussions. I understand that all virtual appearances have been terminated in an entire county. Other courts have adopted hybrid systems with virtual appearances except for pleas and testimonial appearances, which are in person. The result is a “Confusion Corner” for courts throughout the State.
Fortunately, the State Bar Association has been advocating to preserve the benefits of virtual courts, requesting that the Supreme Court reconsider its Order. Part of its effort has been to collect information from attorneys and others involved in the municipal court system so that the Supreme Court and Administrative Offices of the Court can have the benefit of experiences from those involved in the municipal court system.
As stake holders in this system, attorneys need to bring their concerns known to the Court. They can do so by providing their experiences and thoughts to the State Bar Association, which in turn can forward them to the AOC and Court.
Attorneys have an opportunity to make a difference, improving the quality of their work and lives, as well as that of their clients. We should take advantage of the opportunity to improve the municipal court system in our State.