One individual who found a way to dispense justice with mercy and humility for years, in Monmouth County Municipal Courts, is retired Judge Mark Apostolou.
Article by Peter H. Lederman, Esq.
Published in the New Jersey Law Journal
At the end of the street where I have lived for many years, there is a house of worship that I drive past every day. On its walls are the words: “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
This biblical passage, from Micah 6:8 asks: “[W]hat does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God?” I often think of the power of those three words: justice, mercy and humility.
Over the past year, I have tried to bring attention to many of the inherent problems in our municipal court system. Despite these problems, courts succeed because of individuals who bring something special to their courts. One individual who found a way to dispense justice with mercy and humility for years in Monmouth County Municipal Courts is retired Judge Mark Apostolou.
I appeared before Judge Apostolou many times. On one occasion, some time ago, I made a motion to suppress arising out of a DWI checkpoint. The defendant, seeing the checkpoint in front of him, chose to avoid passing through by turning onto a side street. Not to be deterred, officers in a chase car pursued the defendant, stopped him, determined that he was under the influence of alcohol and charged him with a violation of the DWI statute. The argument subsequently raised on behalf of the defendant was that the officer had no legal basis to stop the defendant’s car, as he had violated no motor vehicle law and simply chose not to proceed through the checkpoint. Notwithstanding argument that suppression should be granted, Judge Apostolou denied the motion. End of story? Not quite.
A week later, I received a call from the judge. He had thought more about the issues raised and concluded that he had erred in denying suppression. Upon his reconsideration, suppression was granted. Several months later, the Appellate Division agreed with his legal analysis in State v. Hester. Of course, the next time I appeared before him, the judge was more than pleased that the Appellate Division had gotten it right.
Just as each town a judge sits in is unique, Judge Apostolou, who sat in as many as 12 towns, brought a unique style to running his courts over the course of his 25 years on the bench. Make no mistake, justice was done in those courts. But mercy also tempered that justice.
He respected those in attendance, addressing them as gentlemen and ladies, understanding that to get respect he had to give respect. He believed that in addition to enforcing laws, he had a mandate to touch people and change lives. He also had a responsibility to treat people with dignity. He understood that to serve as a judge, he had to administer courts within the municipal court system. But at the same time he was concerned about the people who appeared before him.
I recently had the pleasure to sit down with the judge to discuss his thoughts about the municipal court system, reflecting on his years on the bench. One of his primary concerns was that the system did not lend itself to solving problems, beyond adjudication of pending offenses. He expressed concern that the so-called “60-day rule” rushed adjudication to resolution before the court could address the problems that the case presented. In a sense, he felt that the pressure to move cases interfered with his ability to focus on what he felt should be done in a particular case.
Judge Apostolou also expressed concern that he lacked the tools to do what he felt was his job: to make a difference for many of the defendants who appeared before him. He referred to truancy cases, where imposing sanctions on students did little to improve attendance. He also talked about people appearing before him who apparently suffered from mental diseases and addiction issues, for whom the imposition of penalties also did little to make a difference. In addition, the judge talked about being confronted with difficult marital problems, in the form of domestic violence complaints.
Ultimately, to be able to address many of the issues presented in court, he said he felt that judges needed more time and resources. A judge sitting in a court once or twice a month barely had enough time to deal with the matters on the docket. Rather, he felt judges appointed full time, with investigators and adequate court staff, could have an opportunity to address problems associated with the offenses that bring the defendants before the court. He also expressed the belief that cases should be prosecuted by full-time prosecutors.
As most towns lacked the resources to undertake the type of work contemplated, the judge said he felt municipal courts should be merged into the Superior Courts, with separate specialized divisions dealing with DWI and lesser criminal matters, domestic violence and substance issues. In the end, Judge Apostolou was and is the gentleman who addressed all those who appeared before him. He did justice applying the laws as they were, faithfully exercising his duty to uphold the Constitution. At the same time, he combined mercy and compassion for those who appeared in his courts with humility and grace. He cared for those people, realizing that perhaps they might not be as fortunate as he.
Other judges should take note of his career when they endeavor to adjudicate in their courts.