It is through the Municipal Courts that most citizens in the State come into contact with the judicial system, either as a defendant, a victim, or a witness. Since most citizens will never appear before another court, it is from their experience in the Municipal Courts that most people base their conclusions about the quality of justice in New Jersey.
The Municipal Courts in New Jersey are considered courts of limited jurisdiction, having responsibility for motor vehicle and parking tickets, minor criminal-type offenses (for example, simple assault and bad checks), municipal ordinance offenses (such as dog barking or building code violations) and other offenses, such as fish and game violations. A Municipal Court usually has jurisdiction only over cases that occur within the boundaries of its municipality.
The qualifications to become a Municipal Court Judge are set by statute (law) and include the requirement that the candidate be a New Jersey resident who has been admitted to the practice of law in this State for at least five years. Municipal Court judges are usually appointed by the Mayor of the municipality, with the advice and consent of the council, and serve a term of three years.
The Superior Court Assignment Judge is the chief judicial officer in each vicinage. A vicinage is geographical division composed of a single county or a group of counties. There are 15 vicinages in New Jersey. The Assignment Judge has overall responsibility for the administration of all Courts within the vicinage, including the Municipal Courts.
A person who disagrees with the decision of a Municipal Court may appeal. That appeal must be filed within 20 calendar days of the court’s decision. Appeals from the Municipal Courts are heard at the county level in the Superior Court, Law Division.
The Superior Court Judge reviews the transcript (produced from the audio recording of the trial) and any other evidence or legal papers from the trial and makes a decision regarding the case. New testimony or evidence are generally not admitted for the appeal. The Judiciary has prepared an information packet, “How to Appeal a Decision of a Municipal Court”, for persons wishing to appeal a Municipal Court decision.
60 Days to Disposition Goal
The Supreme Court of New Jersey has established 60 days as the standard goal to dispose of a Municipal Court case. Cases that take longer than 60 days are considered to be in backlog and are looked at very closely.
MEDIATION AND MINOR DISPUTES
Mediation is a process that seeks to resolve disputes through the intervention of a trained mediator, without pursuing a matter through the courts to trial and conviction. The mediator encourages discussions between the parties to help them reach an agreement they can both accept.
The types of complaints sent to mediation generally include citizen complaints involving disputes between individuals or groups. These are commonly referred to as “neighborhood disputes”. Not all complaints can be referred to mediation. For example, motor vehicle matters and criminal matters cannot be resolved using the mediation process.
Mediation offers benefits, including: establishing early, direct communications and understanding between the parties about the important issues of each side; the result may benefit all of the parties and provide a win-win solution; and mediation can be less expensive, more relaxed and a more meaningful alternative to the traditional trial process.
Mediation is available in nearly all municipalities and is made possible largely because of the efforts of trained volunteers who are the mediators. As indicated by the Chief Justice, one of the keys to the future of the Municipal Court system, and, indeed, a key to the future of the entire Judiciary, is the continued use and expansion of mediation and other community dispute resolution programs. This grass roots citizen involvement in the administration of justice is a particularly effective means to keep the Municipal Courts close to the communities they serve.