In New Jersey, there are several different kinds of courts. They include:
- New Jersey Supreme Court
- Superior Court (which includes the Appellate Division)
- Tax Court
- Municipal Courts
Cases involving criminal, civil and family law are heard in the Superior Court. The Superior Court is sometimes called the trial court because it is where trials are conducted. There is a Superior Court in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties. There are approximately 360 Superior Court trial judges in New Jersey.
Criminal cases are those in which a defendant is accused of a serious crime, such as robbery, theft, drug possession or murder. In a criminal case, a prosecutor tries to prove that the defendant committed a crime. The prosecutor is an attorney who represents the State of New Jersey, and the defense attorney represents the defendant. The judge oversees the proceedings and ensures that they are conducted according to the law and the rules of court.
Most criminal trials are decided by a jury consisting of 12 citizens. The jury represents the community in which the crime occurred. The jury’s role is to hear the evidence presented by the prosecutor and the defense attorney. Evidence is presented to the jury by witnesses who testify.
After all the evidence has been presented, the jury discusses the case in private. If all the jurors believe the evidence proves the defendant committed the crime, the jury convicts the defendant by returning a guilty verdict. After a defendant is convicted, the judge imposes a sentence, such as a term in prison.
If the jurors do not believe the evidence proves the defendant committed the crime, then the jury acquits the defendant by returning a verdict of not guilty. If the jurors are unable to decide between conviction and acquittal, the judge can declare a mistrial, and a new trial can be held with different jurors.
Not every criminal case is decided by a trial. Many cases are resolved through a plea bargain. In a plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty by admitting that he or she committed a crime. In return, the prosecutor asks the judge to impose a sentence that is less severe than if the defendant had gone to trial and been convicted. The judge, however, is not required to agree to the recommendation and may choose to ignore it. A plea bargain ensures that a guilty defendant is punished. Plea bargains can be entered either before or even during the trial.
When people do not agree with the outcome of their cases in the trial court or Tax Court, they may appeal their case to a higher court. These higher courts are called appellate courts.
Appellate courts review the decisions of lower courts to determine whether those decisions were correct under the law. In reviewing lower-court decisions, appellate courts, like the trial courts, interpret the New Jersey and United States constitutions. They also interpret statutes, or laws enacted by the the State Legislature.
Appellate review helps to ensure that our courts and laws are fair. It is one of the hallmarks of America’s legal system.
There are two appellate courts in New Jersey: the Appellate Division of Superior Court and the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Appellate Division of Superior Court
In the Appellate Division, cases are reviewed and decided by panels of two or three judges.There are no juries or witnesses in Appellate Division cases, and no new evidence is considered. Instead, lawyers make their legal arguments to the judges.
In reviewing a case, Appellate Division judges ask hard but important questions: Did the evidence support the jury’s verdict? Were the attorneys competent? Was the judge fair and impartial? Did the judge properly explain the law to the jurors? There are 36 Appellate Division judges in New Jersey.
New Jersey Supreme Court
If either side in a case is unhappy with the outcome in the Appellate Division, it may appeal the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the highest court in New Jersey. The Supreme Court reviews the decisions of New Jersey’s other courts.The Supreme Court, like the Appellate Division, often must interpret laws that are unclear or that conflict with other laws. For example, when does one person’s right to protest interfere with the privacy rights of the person who is the target of the protest? When may the police search someone’s home or car? What did the Legislature intend when it enacted a particular law?
In the Supreme Court, cases are decided by a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices. As in the Appellate Division, there are no juries or witnesses, and no new evidence is considered. Instead, the Supreme Court examines whether the proceedings and outcomes in the lower courts were fair, unbiased and conducted in accordance with the law, and whether the outcomes were correct under the law.
By far, most of the cases filed in New Jersey’s courts are heard in the Municipal Courts. In fact, about six million of the seven million cases filed in New Jersey’s courts each year are filed in the Municipal Courts.
The Municipal Courts hear a great variety of cases. Municipal Court is where cases involving motor-vehicles offenses, such as illegal parking, speeding and driving while intoxicated, are heard.
Municipal Courts also hear cases involving minor criminal offenses such as simple assault, trespassing and shoplifting. In New Jersey, these minor crimes are known as disorderly persons offenses. Cases involving hunting, fishing and boating laws and even minor disputes between neighbors are also heard in Municipal Courts.
Municipal Courts are operated by the city, township or borough in which the courts are located. There are 539 Municipal Courts in the state.