On behalf of Chief Justice Rabner and me, it is with great pleasure that I greet the Judiciary’s judges and staff and the public as we begin the traditional opening of the court year.
We’ve faced our share of challenges since last year at this time. Judicial vacancies, diminishing financial resources, high-profile cases, fewer staff, more self-represented litigants, storms and floods and even an earthquake were no match for our staff and judges and their dedication to the works of the courts.
We have not waivered in our mission to remain independent and to resolve cases with integrity, fairness and quality service.
Public education about court programs has remained a top priority for vicinages around the state, with dozens of workshops and seminars offered in every county on topics covering gang violence, landlord-tenant cases, the needs of senior citizens, expungement, divorce and other issues that affect the lives of New Jersey citizens every day.
Public education also has expanded through our use of social media. Nearly 30 YouTube videos explain court programs and services and the number continues to grow. We keep attorneys, the press and court followers updated through our Twitter and Facebook accounts.
The addition of online services have made doing business with the courts easier and more convenient.
It is now possible for the public to search, through judiciary.state.nj.us, the criminal data base, the civil judgments data base, a catalogue of continuing legal education classes for attorneys, a data base of attorneys licensed to practice in New Jersey, and tax court opinions.
Attorneys can meet their annual obligation to register and submit payment though our website. And jurors, who are at the very heart of our system of justice, can respond to their jury summonses and get important information online.
Nowhere can we make our courts more transparent, our case management systems more efficient and effective and our resources more prudently used than through the development of technological enhancements to improve how New Jersey courts do business.
We now have laid the foundation to move to the next level innovation, in case filing, in customer service, in paperless court functions, including administrative functions, and in access to the courts.
Another area of focus will be on access to the courts and fairness in court procedures. When we talk about access to the courts, we must consider what that means across many levels. Court records. Self-represented litigants. Language barriers. Racial and cultural diversity.
Last year you began to learn about the work of the Supreme Court Committee on Access and Fairness and the four principles that must guide our interactions with litigants, attorneys and other court users: respect, voice, neutrality and trust.
These simple yet powerful principles are what make the difference between a public that believes in the courts and a public that does not. Access and Fairness will be a recurring theme this year as training and events take place around the state to ensure that every court experience, regardless of case outcome, is fair and just.
We cannot talk about court user experience without recognizing that one of the most significant obstacles to public trust and confidence in the courts is the dearth of civics education and a general lack of knowledge about the basic tenets of the constitution, both state and federal, concerning the three branches of government, the separation of powers, and the “Rule of Law.”
We must take every opportunity educate the public about how the courts work and about the role of the courts in society.
At last year’s state bar association conference, Chief Justice Rabner announced our partnership with the New Jersey Bar Association to launch a program called “Benchmarks,” a civics education program for adults first launched in Florida and now adopted in about a dozen states.
We’ve embarked on this project because our system of government depends on having educated and informed citizens. The Benchmarks Program is an important step in that direction.We will continue to face challenges, but I say with confidence and with gratitude: We are ready.