The New Jersey Office of the Public Defender can continue to pursue its effort to improve conditions at the Warren County Courthouse’s lone courtroom used for criminal trials, an appeals court has ruled.
A three-judge Appellate Division panel, in a published decision, suggested that a special master be appointed to determine what improvements should be made to Courtroom No. 2, which has been the subject of litigation for seven years.
The litigation had been assigned to Middlesex County Assignment Judge Trevor Francis, who has since retired. Francis had ruled that, in the latest installment of the litigation, the Office of the Public Defender had no standing to challenge the current design of the courtroom because the office had no clients currently on trial.
The appeals court on Monday overturned that ruling and suggested to current Assignment Judge Alberto Rivas that he appoint a special master to examine the courtroom for further possible improvements.
“The subject matter of the litigation implicates the interests of the indigent criminal defendants the OPD is mandated to represent in that county, and such cases will be assigned to that courtroom,” wrote Appellate Division Judge Carmen Alvarez for the panel.
“Thus, issues ‘of substantial justice and sound judicial administration’ cannot be conclusively addressed without the OPD’s participation,” Alvarez said.
Judges William Nugent and Richard Geiger joined in the ruling.
Deputy Public Defender Karl Keys has been handling the litigation for the OPD.
“We’re extremely pleased that we have a chance to have our arguments settled on the merits,” he said.
The OPD’s standing had been challenged by Warren County and the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office. The county was represented by Joseph Bell IV of Bell & Shivas in Rockaway. Neither he nor Warren County Prosecutor Richard Burke returned calls seeking comment on Monday’s ruling.
The original litigation was filed by the OPD in 2011, claiming the courtroom denied defendants their constitutional rights. The room was built specifically for criminal trials, with an elevator to bring prisoners directly from the basement rather than marching them through the halls. But in February 2012, Superior Court Judge Ann Bartlett declared the courtroom unfit for criminal trials because a pillar blocked the sight lines between the defense table and the jury box and witness stand.
Bartlett granted a defense motion to move a trial to another courtroom on the ground that the defendant’s inability to clearly see witnesses and jurors violated constitutional rights to confront accusers and to a fair trial.
Since then, criminal trials have been held in Courtroom No. 1, which has no dedicated elevator, so prisoners are once more being moved through hallways, creating a safety risk, according to the court.
New Jersey Court Rule 1:31-2 allows the Administrative Office of the Courts to determine the adequacy of court facilities, and the county’s complaint alleges the AOC and judiciary were “intimately involved” in the planning and design of the renovation.
The AOC agreed with Warren County that the problems were fixed and that Courtroom No. 2 could be used for criminal trials. But the OPD maintained that the sight lines between the defendant and the witness box were still inadequate, and that jurors could hear confidential discussions between defendants and their attorneys because of the small size of the room.
“Any final decision reached regarding the courtroom will have long-term consequences,” Alvarez said. “The question of whether Courtroom No. 2 passes constitutional muster demands a more comprehensive examination.”