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Saturday, July 20, 2024


Why Did the County Pay for Courthouse Renovations?

Why Did the County Pay for Courthouse Renovations?

By Vince Conti

COURT HOUSE – In May, Cape May County officials unveiled a $4.8 million renovation at the Cape May County Superior Courthouse complex on Route 9 in Middle Township. 
One question that arose in the minds of some observers was why the county footed the bill for the renovations, when judiciary staffs are largely state employees.
County employees in the complex benefited from the renovations, but the project, largely undertaken at the request of the state judiciary, was not supported by state funds. The state pays salaries, wages, and benefits for judiciary employees.  
The renovation of underutilized space on the third floor provided a new courtroom, allowed for the relocation of the Surrogate’s Office, unified space for Sheriff’s Office personnel, and created a new home for the Criminal Division administration. 
Freed space elsewhere in the complex meant a new home for the Prosecutor’s Office staff, assigned to the courthouse, and increased conference room space for meetings between lawyers and their clients.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony ( showed the investment to be a win, with representatives of the Cape May County Bar Association on hand to praise the effort, yet the question remained – why no state funding for the project?
As Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton explained at the May 3 ceremony, the project was first discussed seven years earlier, when Vicinage No. 1 Assignment Judge Julio Mendez approached Thornton about the growing need for space. An initial estimate of a $6 million project posed an early obstacle, with the number whittled down before an award was made.
The courthouse building dates to 1927, when it replaced the now historic courthouse next door, which dated to 1848. Additions to the building over the years were at the county’s expense, but they also came at a time when the courts were mostly county courts, not directly part of the state judiciary system.
The 1947 state constitution significantly altered the landscape for the state court system. Before that constitution, New Jersey had an array of county and state courts, often with overlapping jurisdictions. 
The Superior Court of that day did not have general oversight of the county and special courts. A court of errors and appeals sat over the Superior Court, with a 16-member bench comprised of as many as 10 lay judges. One constitutional convention delegate is famously quoted as calling the court of errors and appeals “little larger than a jury, little less than a mob.”
The new constitution created a three-tier system, with separate law and equity components. The Superior Court was given jurisdiction over all matters in state courts, and was comprised of a law division, to hear civil and criminal cases, as well as a small claims court, and an equity division for family issues, probate and civil actions that seek other than monetary judgments.
Above the Superior Court came a formal Appellate Division, without lay judges, and finally, the state Supreme Court.
Municipal courts remained municipal organizations, but the Superior Court assignment judge has unlimited responsibility for the administration of the municipal courts. Municipal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, dealing mostly with motor vehicle infractions, minor criminal offenses, and ordinance violations.
To round out the structure, New Jersey also has a separate Tax Court, also a court of limited jurisdiction, which is not part of the Superior Court system. Appeals of Tax Court decisions are heard at the Appellate Division of Superior Court. 
The new superior courts were organized in vicinages defined by geographic area. After some adjustment, Vicinage No. 1 came to be organized around Atlantic and Cape May counties. An earlier version of the organization placed Cape May and Atlantic counties in a vicinage that also contained Cumberland and Salem counties. The change occurred in 1983.
The term vicinage is unique to New Jersey. Other states use terms such as districts or circuits to designate the same defined geographic organization of court jurisdictions.
There are 15 vicinages across 21 counties, with 11 counties comprising their vicinage, and the other 10 counties a part of four multi-county vicinages.
Demise of County Courts
Throughout the post-1947 reorganization of the judiciary, general-purpose county courts survived, a relic of still powerful county political interests.
It was not until the 1980s that county courts were absorbed into the state Superior Court system. Responsibility for expenses was still borne by the counties. 
The arrangement set up numerous avenues of potential conflict, as the court system across the vicinages saw annual funding depend more on individual county decisions than on vicinage workloads.
A 1992 constitutional amendment began the phasing out of the county support, and phased in the state assumption of most court costs; however, that had a caveat. By 1995, all court employees were moved to state budgets. 
The state Administrative Office of the Courts assumed oversight of all court functions. Resource allocations were made by the state, and began to better reflect the vicinage workload.
One study shows there were 95 court support personnel and four judges in the Cape May County component of the vicinage on the effective date of state funding – Jan. 1, 1995.
The caveat in this transfer of funding responsibility was that the responsibility for facilities remained with the county. Article VI, Section VIII of the state constitution differentiates between what is termed judicial and probation costs, which were assumed by the state, and “judicial facilities costs,” which remained with the counties.
As Thornton tells it, it was the almost 25-year-old decision to leave facilities costs with the counties that led to Cape May County’s funding of the third-floor renovations to the courthouse, as part of an agreement between the county freeholders and the state judiciary, represented by the assignment judge.
To contact Vince Conti, email

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