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Welcome to the New Jersey Court System

photograph of a Court Room

The Judiciary, or court system, is one of the three co-equal but independent branches of state government established in New Jersey by the 1947 state constitution. The other two are the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch.

Courts are a very visible part of our legal system. Each year, about seven million new cases are filed in New Jersey's state-level courts. These cases involve everything from education, the environment, wills, crimes, contracts and car accidents to health care, taxes, adoptions, divorces, defective products, and our basic rights as Americans, such as the freedom of speech. The decisions that are made in our courts influence people's lives in countless ways.

This is an overview of the court system in New Jersey - its function, how it works, and how it serves the public and society. Also included are tips on how to find a court opinion, the written explanation of a court's decision in a case, in a law book or online.

Important Principles of the Court System

In every case, New Jersey's courts strive to achieve one thing: justice. To achieve justice, our courts must be independent, open and impartial.

Judicial Independence

Judicial independence permits judges to make decisions that they believe are correct, fair and just even though their decisions may sometimes be unpopular.

Open Proceedings

Not only must the court system work and be fair, but it is important that people see that it works and is fair. When people have confidence in the legal system, they will support it and their respect for the law will grow. For this reason, most court proceedings, including trials, are open to the public.

Equal Treatment

For our courts to be fair, judges must be impartial -- that is, they may not favor either side in a case. The goal of our courts is to provide equal treatment for all people, regardless of their wealth, position, race, gender, religion, ethnic background or physical disability.

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Types of Courts, Types of Cases

In New Jersey, there are several different kinds of courts. They include the New Jersey Supreme Court, the Superior Court, which includes the Appellate Division, the Tax Court, and the Municipal Courts.

Superior Court

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

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.

Civil Cases

Civil lawsuits are cases in which a plaintiff claims that he or she has been injured by the actions of the defendant. Injury is a legal term meaning any harm done to a person's body, property, reputation or rights.

In some civil cases, the plaintiff seeks damages, or money, from the defendant as compensation for injuries allegedly caused by the defendant. Examples are cases involving car accidents, age, race or gender discrimination in the workplace, medical malpractice, defective products, differences over the terms of contracts, and disputes between landlords and tenants. Civil juries consist of six members.

Not all civil cases, however, involve attempts to receive compensation for injuries. People also file lawsuits to enforce their rights. In New Jersey, these kinds of non-monetary lawsuits are called General Equity cases. A General Equity case may involve a terminally ill person s right to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment, or a dispute between labor and management over rights in the workplace, or even a company s ability to protect its trade secrets, such as how it makes or markets a product.

Instead of money, the plaintiff in a General Equity case may ask the court to order the defendant to do something: remove a feeding tube, for instance, or end a strike and return to work. General Equity cases are decided by judges instead of juries.

As in criminal cases, the parties in civil cases often agree to settle their disputes without a trial. Settlements may occur before a trial starts or even during a trial. A settlement allows each side to resolve the dispute satisfactorily rather than risk losing at a trial.

Family Cases

Family cases are civil cases in which the disputes involve children, spouses or domestic partners. Examples of family cases are those involving divorce, adoption, juvenile delinquency, child abuse, child support, and domestic violence. Most cases in the Family Court are decided by a judge instead of a jury.To protect the privacy of children, judges are permitted to close some types of Family Court cases to the public.

Tax Court

Tax Court judges review the decisions of county boards of taxation, which determine how much a property should be taxed. Tax Court judges also review the decisions of the State Division of Taxation on such matters as the state income tax, sales tax and business tax. There are 12 Tax Court judges in New Jersey.

Appeals Courts

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.

Municipal Court

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.

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Judges

Supreme Court Justices, Superior Court Judges and Tax Court Judges

The New Jersey Constitution determines how people become Supreme Court justices or Superior Court or Tax Court judges. Under this process, the Governor nominates a person to be a justice or a judge. The Governor submits the nomination to the state Senate, which then votes whether to confirm the nominee for the position. If confirmed by the Senate, the nominee is sworn in for an initial term of seven years.

Reappointment

After seven years, justices and judges can be reappointed. Again, the Governor submits a nomination to the state Senate, which votes whether to confirm the nominee for reappointment.

Justices and judges who are reappointed have tenure, which allows them to remain in their posts until they reach the age of 70, when the New Jersey Constitution requires that they retire. The appointment process and tenure strengthen judicial independence.

Municipal Court Judges

Municipal Court judges are appointed by the town's governing body. Terms are for three years. Municipal Court judges may be reappointed, but there is no tenure.

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Jury Duty

Each year, thousands of citizens in New Jersey serve as jurors in Superior Court. Jury service is a civic duty in our democracy. When jurors decide a case, they represent the community as a whole. By serving as jurors, people help to ensure that our system of justice is fair.

Petit Jury, Grand Jury

There are two types of juries: petit juries and grand juries. Most jurors serve on petit juries. Petit means small. A petit jury decides the outcome of a criminal trial or of a civil trial in which monetary damages are sought. In New Jersey, juries in criminal trials consist of 12 jurors, while juries in civil trials consist of six jurors.

People also are summoned to serve on grand juries. A grand jury decides whether there is enough evidence for a person to be brought to trial for a crime. Most criminal cases begin with a decision by a grand jury to indict a defendant. An indictment is an official, written accusation charging someone with a crime. An indictment is not proof of a crime.

Grand juries consist of 23 people who typically meet once a week for 16 weeks. Grand juries are operated by prosecutors, who decide what evidence to present to the grand jury. Unlike criminal or civil trials, grand jury proceedings are not open to the public.

How Are Jurors Chosen?

Jurors, whether petit or grand, are chosen at random from among a county's registered voters and licensed drivers, as well as from among those residents who file state income tax returns and homestead rebate applications.

In order to serve as a juror in New Jersey, a person must meet certain qualifications. A juror must be a U.S. citizen, must be at least 18 years old, and must be able to read and understand English. Jurors are paid $5 a day, an amount that is set by state law.

Our system of justice relies on the diligence and dedication that ordinary people bring to jury duty.

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Probation

Probation is a sentence that judges can impose on people convicted of crimes. Probation is typically given to first time offenders who are convicted of non-violent crimes. Probation allows an offender to serve his or her sentence in the community under the supervision of a probation officer. Probation officers work for the Judiciary

A sentence of probation may require an offender to pay fines, to pay restitution to the victims of his or her crime, to seek counseling for substance abuse or for mental health or family problems, or to perform community-service work, such as cleaning litter from a park or highway or removing graffiti from a building.

People on probation remain under the authority of the court. Offenders who violate the conditions of their probation may be returned to court and resentenced to prison. Probation is different from parole. In parole, offenders are supervised by parole officers upon their release from prison.

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How Cases Are Named

Every court case has a name, or caption. In most case captions, the plaintiff's name comes first, followed by the abbreviation v. for "versus," followed by the defendant's name. A civil case in which Jane Smith is suing John Jones, then, would be called Jane Smith v. John Jones, or simply Smith v. Jones.

In criminal cases in New Jersey the plaintiff is always the State of New Jersey because in the eyes of the law, a crime is committed not just against the victim but against society as a whole. A criminal case against Michael Jones would be called State v. Jones.

Not every case name, however, includes both the plaintiff and the defendant. In some civil cases, the caption very briefly describes the case by referring to the subject of the dispute. Examples are Matter of Baby M, and In Re Quinlan.

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How to Find a Case in a Law Book

The written, published opinions of courts are contained in law books. These published opinions constitute what is known as case law. Finding a court opinion in a law book is easy.

The published opinions of New Jersey's courts are contained in three different sets of books. The opinions of the New Jersey Supreme Court are contained in a collection of tan, hardcover books called New Jersey Reports. Significant opinions of the Appellate Division of Superior Court and the New Jersey trial courts are contained in a set of green, hardcover books called New Jersey Superior Court Reports. And the opinions of the Tax Court are contained in blue hardcover books called New Jersey Tax Court Reports.

The opinions in these books are identified by their case citations. A case citation begins with the name of the case. Next comes the volume number of the book in which the opinion can be found, followed by the abbreviated name of the book, followed by the page number. Last, in parentheses, is the year of the decision. A citation of State v. Ramseur, 106 N.J. 123 (1987), means that the opinion is in volume 106 of New Jersey Reports, on page 123, and that the case was decided in 1987.

A citation of State v. Parks, 288 N.J. Super. 407 (1996), means that the opinion is in volume 288 of New Jersey Superior Court Reports, on page 407, and that it was decided in 1996. And a citation of National Paving Co. v. Director of the Division of Taxation, 3 N.J. Tax 133 (1981), means that the opinion can be found in volume 3 of the New Jersey Tax Court Reports, on page 133, and that it was decided in 1981.

Law books are available in the libraries of each of the county courthouses, whose addresses and phone numbers are listed in the back of this brochure.

See if you can find the following cases:

State v. Ramseur, 106 N.J. 123 (1987)

In Re Quinlan, 70 N.J. 10 (1976)

State v. Parks, 288 N.J. Super. 407 (1996)

Pepe v. Pepe, 258 N.J. Super. 157 (1992)

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Locations of New Jersey Courts

There is a Superior court in each of New Jersey's 21 counties. The Superior courts are grouped into 15 court districts called vicinages. Vicinage comes from the Latin word vicinus, and means vicinity, neighborhood or district. Addresses of local courthouses are available for printing or downloading.

Here's a list of New Jersey's Superior court vicinages:

Vicinage 1 - Atlantic & Cape May Counties

Vicinage 2 - Bergen County

Vicinage 3 - Burlington County

Vicinage 4 - Camden County

Vicinage 5 - Essex County

Vicinage 6 - Hudson County

Vicinage 7 - Mercer County

Vicinage 8 - Middlesex County

Vicinage 9 - Monmouth County

Vicinage 10 - Morris & Sussex Counties

Vicinage11 - Passaic County

Vicinage 12 - Union County

Vicinage 13 - Somerset, Hunterdon & Warren Counties

Vicinage 14 - Ocean County

Vicinage 15 - Gloucester, Cumberland & Salem County
New Jersey Vicinages

 

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