Whither Municipal Courts?

Why we should consider incorporating New Jersey’s Municipal Courts into a unified system

Article by Peter H. Lederman, Esq.
Published in the New Jersey Law Journal

New Jersey’s municipal court system suffers from systemic, structural problems that will be difficult to overcome. We need to consider completing the process of unification of our court system, which began 67 years ago.

Municipal courts represent the last piece in the reform and restructuring of a New Jersey court system that began over 67 years ago. There are now 538 municipal courts across the state’s 565 municipalities. Now is the time to look at this court system and determine its proper place in our state court system.

Sixty-seven years ago, in 1947, our third and most recent Constitution was adopted. One of the goals at the time was to reform a court system that reflected the confusion and dysfunction of a tangled system of courts bearing titles such as the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the Court of Common Pleas, the Court of Special Sessions, the Court of Quarter Sessions, the Court of Chancery, the Prerogative Writ Court and so on. The sweeping revisions contained in Article Six of the 1947 Constitution eliminated this maze of courts and replaced it with the unified system of courts we have today. Of course, that unified system did not include incorporation of our municipal, county court and district court systems. Although our Constitution was subsequently amended to include the county and county district court system, municipal courts remain outside the system of unified courts.

The changes enacted in 1947 were largely the result of efforts made by Arthur Vanderbilt, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey and former president of the American Bar Association. He identified goals for a new court system which included appointing judges better equipped to preside in courts, who were politically and economically independent, and who devoted all of their time to their judicial work in a system that was simplified, flexible and efficient.
Over the years, calls have been made to incorporate the municipal court system into a unified system. Past Governor and Chief Justice Richard Hughes spoke publicly about the merger of municipal courts into a unified state court system, which he stated would improve the justice system in New Jersey.

Interestingly, our Judiciary website even notes criticism of the municipal court system, resulting from the “staggering increase in the Municipal Court case load over the years” and “new laws placed under municipal jurisdiction.” The website refers to the over six million cases that are handled by the court each year.

Resistance to change comes from a deep tradition of “home rule” in New Jersey. The question must be asked, though, whether in this day and age, the benefits of local control outweigh the advantages of a unified state court system.
Many studies have considered the relative costs in running stand-alone municipal courts in the towns across our state, as opposed to a single unified state court system. Common sense would suggest that repeating a governmental service in 500-plus municipal courts, for no other reason than geographical or historical identity, would be an inefficient way of resolving motor vehicle and minor criminal complaints. Surely, in a day when the cost of governmental services and the burden of taxes is such a pressing issue, this analysis deserves consideration.

At the same time, constraints on town finances detract from the quality of services expected from these courts. This is a simple function of towns having limited resources to provide for all of the services expected by residents. As a result, municipal courts are expected to make the most out of very limited resources. The problem is further complicated by the fact that towns expect courts not only to dispense justice, but to provide a revenue stream as well.

This concept of municipal courts as profit centers is not new. It should surprise no one that towns seek to enhance revenue to meet budget needs without having to increase residents’ real estate taxes. The problem lies in the fact that this objective can run at cross purposes with the goal of an independent judiciary, expected to do justice.

In January of this year, a local New Jersey newspaper reported that a Monmouth County municipal court judge was not reappointed after a memo was circulated by a councilman complaining that the court failed to generate anticipated revenues for the town. That memo preceded appointment of a new judge in the town of Eatontown. As Justice Barry Albin warned in his 2014 New Jersey State Bar Convention address, a judge should not be concerned about whether doing justice is a “bad career move.” Municipal court judges have no tenure and serve at the governing body’s pleasure, with reappointment every three years. Similarly, prosecutors are appointed every year without tenure.

Those of us who practice on a daily basis in the municipal court system understand these problems. While courts in the largest cities of the state have daily sessions, smaller towns only have court once a week, for several hours. Other courts meet every-other week, with some only meeting monthly. These schedules are a function of the funds that towns are willing to dedicate to pay for judges, prosecutors, public defenders, court administrators and security.

Many towns are simply unwilling to spend the money necessary to pay for additional regular or special sessions to handle additional cases. All the time, these courts must meet time goals set by the Supreme Court for ultimate disposition of matters. As a result, courts extend their sessions late into the night, starting trials at times when no other court would think of conducting their business. Often, these trials have to be tried in parts, due to the fact that trial time is not available. These trials can extend over months until ultimate disposition. Again, what might make sense financially for towns, makes no sense in good administration of those courts.

Financial considerations also play a part in the delay in resolution, when officers are not available to appear, no less testify in matters that are scheduled for resolution. Attorneys who regularly appear in these courts often have to make multiple appearances simply because the officer is not scheduled to be on duty at the time of the court session. This is a problem for both attorneys and pro se defendants, who can spend long hours in court, just to learn that their matter cannot proceed as the officer is not available to approve a disposition. Some towns do not even allow prosecutors to call officers by phone when they are not on duty, to see if a case can be resolved.

The midwife to court unification seems to be “shared” and “joint” municipal courts, which are designed to save costs incurred in operating stand-alone courts. Indeed, a “consolidation plan” for municipal courts was prepared in 2010 to serve as a guide in how to achieve “shared” or “joint” court status, for municipal courts. While many towns have taken steps in this direction, these random combinations of courts fall far short of what a unified court system could do in achieving the stated goals of “independence, integrity, fairness and quality service” for a judicial system.

The glue that now holds the municipal court system together is the fine men and women who serve as judges, prosecutors, public defenders and court administrators throughout the state of New Jersey. However, notwithstanding their efforts, our municipal court system suffers from systemic, structural problems that will be difficult to overcome. Rather, we need to consider completing the process of unification of our court system, which began 67 years ago. Only then can we expect to meet the Judiciary’s stated goals of “independence, integrity, fairness and quality service” in the municipal courts of our state.

Reprinted with permission from the September 4, 2014, issue of the New Jersey Law Journal. © 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.