A revolution has occurred. There were no heroic sacrifices, no massive protests, no ramming the ramparts. No one made a speech that changed the tides of history, no one rallied the masses, no one stood up and said, “I’m angry and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Not a single shot was fired in anger. Not a drop of blood was split. It occurred faster than anyone could have expected, changing an institution that withstood well intentioned reform for over seventy years. It was random, sudden and from all appearances, final.
Seemingly, in a puff, the New Jersey Municipal Court system came crashing down as a result of a confluence of events. Taken by themselves, these events had little to do with the ministrations of the Courts. Together however, they created a synergy that only the most prescient of us could have anticipated would lead to the end of the Municipal Court system as we have known it.
Three factors created this perfect storm. The most obvious is the pandemic which has ravaged our state, country and planet. In the absence of a “miracle drug” to save us all from this scourge, we have been directed to “socially distance” from others. In the context of New Jersey Municipal Courts this has meant abstaining from what has come to be known as “in person appearances”. It is obvious to anyone appearing in many of the Municipal Courts throughout the State, that essential “social distancing” would be difficult if not impossible due to each court room’s unique design characteristics and space. Consequently, our Supreme Court suspended these sessions in most cases, because of the imperatives of public health.
The second factor is the ongoing, insatiable need for revenue otherwise generated in normal times from municipal courts. In round figures, these courts collected about 400 million dollars in revenue from fines and surcharges in 2019. This revenue source essentially dried up as a result of court sessions ending. The missing revenues created an even greater problem for towns, counties and state governments, who were getting hit hard because of other revenue short falls that also occurred as a result of covid-19. What did Plato say? Necessity is the mother of invention.
The final piece of the puzzle was the digital revolution. As a product of that revolution, we have all become “connected” in ways that could only have been imagined ten years earlier. Consider that a year ago, 89% of all households in New Jersey had at least one computer, 82% had a desktop or laptop and 74% had a smartphone. These computers have enabled us to easily communicate with each other by word, voice and image. I imagine that this absorption will only increase until everyone will have some way of communicating through the internet.
The confluence of these events changed a Municipal Court system that simply seemed incapable of change. The “system” of 560 some odd redundant courts, each duplicating the services of neighboring courts, has endured calls for reform over the years. When the old County District Court and County Courts were merged into the unified New Jersey court system, Municipal Courts retained their standalone status. When the crush of governmental expenditures demanded efficiencies of scale delivering more complex and involved court services, the one town-one court system survived under the banner of “home rule”. Even when it became clear that problems faced by one town seemed more similar than not with neighboring towns, courts remained distinct and separate. Worst of all, the prospect of Prosecutors and Judges making decisions knowing that “doing the right thing might be a poor career decision”, could not change the institution.
Virtual court appearances, however, have changed everything. Now, almost all municipal court dispositions result from appearances conducted over the internet. Only very specialized matters requiring pretrial hearing or trial are conducted “in person” and these hearings and trials rarely if ever occur.
Beyond resolving cases by virtual appearances, the Supreme Court has initiated a program that will further hasten the end of municipal courts. Defendants can now negotiate directly online with Prosecutors to downgrade charges and enter pleas through the Online Dispute Resolution program. This program began in May in a limited number of courts and is continuously expanding. Unlike pleas by mail, a defendant does not have to demonstrate any undue hardship to resolve their complaint through this program.
At the end of the day, it is perfectly clear that with electronic dispositions, “in person” appearances are by in large, no longer needed. The new reality is that the municipal court room has been replaced by a screen. Because of this, courts are less personal and less local as the Judge, Prosecutor, Defendant and Defense Counsel are just images on that screen. There is no more court as such, just images. Consequently, any Judge at any location, at any time can preside, any Prosecutor can prosecute, and any Defense Counsel can defend. As such, any Judge on a screen can and will hear any number of cases without the need for court rooms, parking, court attendants and even local administrative staff. Town boundaries will not make any difference. Municipal Courts will have no reason to be Municipal Courts by necessity.
So, it seems to me, Municipal Courts will, well…go up in a puff. But I’ve been wrong before!