Every state in the United States has some form of structured court system, which performs different functions at each level–the State of New Jersey is no exception. It is vital for all parties, especially criminal defendants, to understand the varying levels of the judicial system so they can navigate their criminal case effectively.
However, it is understandable that many parties with legal matters before any court are not well-versed as required to address their case. Thus, any criminal defendant should consider obtaining an experienced New Jersey Superior Court attorney to help facilitate their case.
What Does the Supreme Court of New Jersey Do?
Like most states, New Jersey’s highest court is the New Jersey Supreme Court. The New Jersey Supreme Court is the state’s highest appellate court. An appellate court is tasked with reviewing cases decided in a lower court.
An appellate court will review the decision made by a lower court if one or more parties to the decision file a petition with the higher court to review the case. However, not all cases can be appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Under New Jersey Rules of the Court Rule 2:2-1, a party may appeal a final judgment of the lower court as a matter of right under one of the following circumstances:
- The ruling of the Appellate Division of the Superior Court involved a substantial question arising under the United States Constitution of New Jersey State Constitution
- Appellate cases where one of the judges involved in the case dissented (appellate cases typically impanel a series of judges to review the case, and judges are allowed to issue dissents or disagreements with the opinion of the other judges)
- Cases allow for an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court by law
Once the proper procedures to file the appeal have been fulfilled, the New Jersey Supreme Court will determine whether to hear the case. In most appellate cases, the reviewing appellate court will not review the actual merits of the case. Instead, the court will review procedural or legal questions revolving around the case to determine whether mistakes or misinterpretations were made in various rulings. Further, the New Jersey Supreme Court can uphold, strike down, or alter existing laws passed by the legislature when rendering decisions.
What are the Superior Courts in New Jersey?
The Superior Courts of New Jersey preside over much of the legal cases brought in New Jersey. Although most cases are heard in municipal court, which is explained below, the Superior Court handles a wide variety of cases, including criminal cases, personal injury cases, evictions, contract disputes, personal property cases, real estate transaction issues, divorces, child custody issues, etc. Superior court is often called the trial court because it is the court that presides over all trials and pre-trial litigation.
Appellate Division of the Superior Court
The Appellate Division of the Superior Court is tasked with reviewing judgments and rulings issued by judges presiding over matters in the lower superior court. The appellate court comprises panels of two or three judges, depending on the case (similar to the New Jersey Supreme Court).
Also, similar to the New Jersey Supreme Court, appellate courts do not review the facts of a case. Instead, the court is tasked with reviewing issues of law and procedure brought by at least one of the parties to the case. As such, appellate courts do not preside over jury trials and will not preside over the examination of witnesses or evidence.
What is the Superior Court Simple Definition?
The New Jersey Superior Court is the center of the state’s court system because it presides over numerous legal matters, including Criminal Cases, Civil Cases, and Family Cases. Below is a breakdown of each type of case heard in Superior Court.
The Superior Court is tasked with presiding over all initial criminal matters. Criminal court is where a person or legal entity (a “defendant”) is charged with a crime by the local prosecutor. Criminal activity can include anything from armed robbery, drug possession, murder, etc. The local prosecutor’s office charges a criminal defendant with a crime and proves the defendant’s guilt (criminal fault) in court.
Once charged, the criminal defendant can choose whether the plea is guilty or not to the charged offense. A guilty plea will result in the presiding Superior Court judge reviewing the facts of the case and the defendant’s plea to issue a judgment, which can be a combination of criminal fines, incarceration, and probation. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the prosecutor must present their case-in-chief at a trial before the judge or an empaneled jury.
The role of a Superior Court criminal judge can include the following:
- Conducting hearings on procedural or substantive motions in preparation for trial
- Ruling on questions of evidence before or during the trial
- Overseeing the jury selection
- Issuing sentencing once a trial has concluded
The New Jersey Superior Court also oversees all civil cases. A civil case is a legal matter where one party (the plaintiff) brings a legal action against one or more other parties (the defendant or defendants). Civil cases can encompass countless areas of law or behavior, including personal injury cases, contract disputes, adverse employment actions, real estate transactions, etc.
However, all civil cases must be resolved on two general legal theories: damages or general equity.
- Damages: in civil damages cases, the plaintiff seeks monetary loss for harm suffered due to the defendant’s actions. For example, a plaintiff may file a civil action against a defendant after the defendant hit the plaintiff with their car. Although criminal issues may surround the accident, the plaintiff seeks compensation for the harm suffered.
- General Equity: general equity cases involve non-monetary legal issues presented to the court. Instead of financial harm, a plaintiff seeks the court to act on its behalf with the weight of a judicial ruling against the defendant. For example, a community group could file a temporary restraining order (TRO) against a utility company planning to demolish a local power plant. The goal of the TRO is to halt demolition until a hearing can occur to determine whether demolition is lawful.
Civil cases allow for jury or judge trials. However, in the last few decades, civil trials have decreased dramatically. Parties to a civil case often engage in pre-trial litigation, which consists of filing dispositive motions on the case’s merits. In many instances, parties will commence settlement discussions throughout and seek a settlement before a trial occurs.
Family law cases are still considered civil cases but are separated from general civil cases because of the nature of family cases. Family cases include marriage separations, post-marital disputes, child welfare and custody, and domestic partner issues. Family law judges are equipped with special training that allows them to navigate the challenging issues presented in many family cases. Further, judges are provided additional tools to seal case information like motions and evidence from the public to protect the sensitivity of parties, most notably children.
Superior Court Docket
A docket, in this case, the Superior Court Docket, is the listing of all open legal matters being presided over by the Superior Court. The docket typically includes the name of the case, the case filing number, public information about the parties and their attorneys, the court and judge assigned to oversee the case, and a listing of all the filings submitted to the court throughout the life of the case.
Tax Court is a tiny portion of the overall New Jersey judicial system. New Jersey courts allow 12 tax court judges to sit on the bench. These judges preside over tax-related issues, which include decisions made by the State Division of Taxation on state income tax issues, sales taxes, and business taxes. Tax Court also handles decisions made by county boards to alter and levy property taxes throughout the state.
What is Superior Court v. Municipal Court in New Jersey?
New Jersey Municipal Court is the most utilized court in the entire judiciary. According to the New Jersey Judiciary, the New Jersey Municipal Court hears approximately six to seven million different cases, on average, per year. The types of cases heard in Municipal Court can include:
- Minor motor vehicle matters (traffic violations, driving while intoxicated violations, and parking tickets)
- Individual licensing issues (hunting, fishing, or boating licenses)
- Minor property disputes between neighbors
Is the Superior Court State or Federal in New Jersey?
Superior court is the state court system for the State of New Jersey. Articles III and VI of the New Jersey Constitution grant New Jersey the power to establish a judiciary of which the New Jersey Superior Court is central to that system.
However, the New Jersey Superior Court is not considered a federal court. Under the United States Constitution, the federal government has the power to establish federal district courts in each state. Thus, the United States District Court of New Jersey is the federal trial court presiding over federal issues and legal questions arising out of the state of New Jersey.
How are Judges Appointed to the Superior Court?
Under the New Jersey Constitution, judges for the State Supreme Court, Appellate Court, Superior Court, Tax Court, and Municipal Court undergo the same process for appointment to the bench. Every year, the Governor nominates judges for each court. The nominations are submitted to the State Senate of the New Jersey legislature and voted on by the senators. Once confirmed, the judges are appointed to the bench and serve seven years.
Once their term has concluded, the Governor can resubmit the judge for nomination to the bench again. After the second nomination, a judge earns tenure, meaning they can maintain their position without future reappointments until retirement. All judges must retire by their 70th birthday under New Jersey state law.
How are Jurors Chosen in Superior Court Cases?
The jury trial is a unique function in the United States judicial system. Under both the Sixth and Seventh Amendments, a trial by jury is preserved for both criminal and civil cases (the Seventh Amendment only guarantees civil trial in federal court, but most states, including New Jersey, guarantee a right to trial in many civil cases). In New Jersey, like many states, the empanelment of a jury takes two forms: grand juries and petit juries.
A petit trial is seen on many popular television shows and movies. A criminal or civil jury trial consists of 12 or six jurors. The jury must attend the entirety of a trial to determine whether the criminal or civil defendant has committed whatever they are accused of doing.
Petit trials require all jurors to decide on each individual count unanimously. In criminal trials, the jury must determine whether the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant committed the alleged crime. For civil trials, the plaintiff must prove beyond clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions led to the plaintiff’s harm requiring the payment of monetary damages.
Unlike a petit jury, a grand jury is empaneled to determine whether the local prosecutor can charge an individual for alleged criminal wrongdoing. Under New Jersey law, grand juries consist of 23 individuals that meet once a week for a 16-week period. All grand jury proceedings are sealed to protect the integrity of ongoing criminal investigations and to prevent any inference to an individual’s right to a fair trial. During a grand jury proceeding, prosecutors lay out their evidence and arguments to obtain the ability to file an indictment. Getting this right is not proof of wrongdoing.
The Jury Pool – Selecting Jurors
Many often wonder how the judicial system identifies and selects judges. The judiciary has access to several lists of residents, including voter registrations, driver’s license rolls, income tax returns, and homeowners rebate application lists. Once obtained, the judiciary will randomly select residents and send notices to their last known address.
To serve, a juror must be at least 18 years old, possess no criminal background, read and write in English, and possess the mental and physical capabilities for trial. Jurors are paid $5 daily for their first three days of service on petit juries and earn $40 after three days. Lastly, jurors cannot be subjected to any retaliation or adverse employment action for their service on a jury.