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In re Vicinage 13 of New Jersey Superior Court

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

April 16, 2018

IN RE: VICINAGE 13 OF THE NEW JERSEY SUPERIOR COURT; WARREN COUNTY OFFICE OF THE PROSECUTOR;NEW JERSEY OFFICE OF THE PUBLIC DEFENDER, WARREN REGION; WARREN COUNTY BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS

          Submitted November 29, 2017

          On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-1806-12.

          Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant New Jersey Office of the Public Defender (Karl R. Keys, Deputy Public Defender, of counsel and on the brief).

          Bell and Shivas, PC, attorneys for respondent County of Warren (Joseph J. Bell, IV, and Brian C. Laskiewicz, on the brief).

          Richard T. Burke, Warren County Prosecutor, attorney for respondent State of New Jersey (Kelly Anne Shelton, Assistant Prosecutor, of counsel and on the brief).

          Before Judges Alvarez, Nugent, and Geiger.

          OPINION

          ALVAREZ, P.J.A.D JUDGE.

         The New Jersey Office of the Public Defender (OPD) appeals from an April 29, 2016 declaratory judgment finding Courtroom No. 2 in the Warren County Courthouse to be constitutionally adequate for the conduct of criminal jury trials. We now reverse and remand. We also suggest the assignment judge of Middlesex County, to whom the matter had been transferred for decision, consider appointing a special master, pursuant to Rule 4:41-1, to make findings and recommendations before rendering a decision.

         This case has an unusual procedural history. It commenced in 2011, when a Warren County public defender objected to conducting a criminal trial in newly renovated Courtroom No. 2.[1]His objection was overruled, and the matter proceeded to conclusion. On February 6, 2012, a second case was scheduled to be heard in the courtroom, and this time, the trial judge granted the motion to move the trial elsewhere. That judge described in detail problems with the design, including obstructions to a defendant's view of the witness stand and the jury box. The judge determined that the courtroom was constitutionally inadequate.

         On February 9, 2012, the Warren County Prosecutor's Office (prosecutor's office) filed a motion before the Warren County assignment judge, seeking to vacate the trial judge's order barring the use of Courtroom No. 2. Meanwhile, a third application was made to stay a criminal trial in that courtroom. The Warren County assignment judge consolidated the matters and transferred them for hearing before the assignment judge of Middlesex County. The prosecutor's office then filed a verified complaint and order to show cause in that vicinage. The OPD removed the matter to federal court; it was remanded back to state court on June 20, 2012. The case, captioned "In re Vicinage 13, " thereafter languished.

         In the interim, Warren County filed separate litigation concerning the courtroom, which was settled with the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) in September 2015.[2]After the parties agreed to certain renovations, the action was dismissed. In March 2016, for reasons not included in the record on appeal, Warren County moved for declaratory judgment pursuant to the Declaratory Judgment Act (DJA), N.J.S.A. 2A:16-50 to -62.[3]The matter bore the docket number of the prior--by then inactive- -proceeding. It was the outcome of the DJA application that resulted in the order now appealed.

         Turning to that decision, the assignment judge to whom the matter had been transferred ruled that the OPD lacked standing to participate. Acknowledging New Jersey's expansive view of the doctrine, the judge nonetheless reached this conclusion because the OPD did not represent a specific individual whose trial was currently scheduled in the courtroom.

         Additionally, the court reasoned that even if the OPD had standing, the modifications agreed to in 2015 in the Vicinage 13 action between Warren County and the AOC corrected the six courtroom defects identified by the trial judge in 2012. The assignment judge based his determination in part on the representations of an architect the judge had designated for that purpose.

         A certification from an OPD attorney, however, stated that not only were the constitutional issues with the courtroom unresolved, the settlement agreement called for modifications that were not completed. The attorney alleged that the alterations to the courtroom made it more cosmetically functional but failed to: correct line of sight issues, provide the space necessary for a criminal trial, and increase the available seats in the courtroom- -meaning that, overall, the space was inadequate for jury selection as well as for public attendance.

         The OPD raises the following points for our consideration:

POINT I
THE PUBLIC DEFENDER HAS ...

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