City’s Court Structure Evolved Soon after Merger into Essex

History and Landscape
Published July 17, 1997

City’s Court Structure Evolved Soon after Merger into Essex

| Published July 17, 1997

Patriots gather at the County Court House in 1774 Illustration from the book 'A Short History of Newark,' by Frank J. Urquhart

Today's article focuses on the courts in Newark. Almost from Newark's inception, there has been a court associated with the community. Soon after the merger of Newark and Elizabethtown into Essex County, a court was established here, and for well over a century it occupied the same building as Old First Church.

When the church moved out of its second home, to its present Broad Street location in 1791, the original court remained until about 1807, when it moved to a new building at Broad and Walnut street, the present site of Grace Episcopal Church. The custom of the court was to meet on the fourth Wednesday in February and on the second Wednesday in September. Its charge was to 'hear and try all causes and actions that could be necessary and desired within our compass.'

In its early days, the court was simple in surroundings and procedures. Juries had just members. Minor crimes were subject to fines of about a shilling, but swearing at one's parents, murder, rape and kidnapping were all punishable by death, although the first execution was not until the 1790s. This was a time when lawyers were feared and distrusted. Litigants were encouraged to defend themselves or ask help of a friend or neighbor. About the same time, the province of East Jersey established a series of its own courts, which included a Court of Small Causes, similar to today's municipal court; a County Court that met twice annually, whose function it was to try 'all cases actionable,' and a Court of Assizes that could refer appeals to the governor, his council or even the king. The Assembly also established a separate Court of Chancery, or equity, to review civil cases.

By 1800, Newark's old meeting house, Court building and assembly hall had become obsolete. Sometime between 1806 and 1808, plans were made for the construction of a new courthouse at Broad and Walnut streets. Gov. William Pennington donated the land for the building, and a large number of stones from the original structure were brought to the construction site for inclusion in the new building. Soon, a three-story structure was completed with underground prisoner cells and a third-floor debtor's prison. The new courthouse served its purpose well until fire destroyed it on the night of Aug. 5, l835. At that time, the county purchased land in Lincoln Park for a replacement. While construction is believed to have begun, plans were suddenly altered, and in its place a courthouse was built at Springfield Avenue and West Market Street, where the Lincoln statue stands. The Egyptian-style building that we mentioned several weeks ago rose on that site. On one hand, it was one of the most beautiful and unique structures in the state. On the other, it was 'one of the finest examples of pure Egyptian monument extravagance and folly.' Regardless of all the opinions about it, it withstood 70 years as the administrative center for Essex County.

In the 1860s, Newark moved its offices from the building and purchased Stewart's Hotel at Broad and William streets, which served as city hall until 1905, when Newark City Hall opened a block south on Broad. At the same time, the city's police courts were dispersed to local police precincts for 'better neighborhood justice.' Generally, it was felt that the handling of purely local court matters in the individual ward would be less intimidating, and that purely local problems would be better solved closer to home. In 1913, Congress, recognizing the importance of Newark and northern New Jersey, established regular terms of the U.S. Court for New Jersey here in the city. For the first time in more than a century, cases involving federal litigation could be tried in Newark without making a trip to Trenton. Years later, when Newark was preparing to celebrate its 300th anniversary in 1966, the federal government located five of its eight federal District Court judges in Federal Square in downtown Newark. At the same time, the new 13-story $21 million Essex court complex was completed along with a 14-story jail and a three-level parking garage.

Today, by ordinance, the Newark Municipal Court has seven judges appointed by the mayor with the advice and consent of the Newark City Council, one of whom is appointed presiding judge. Subject to the rules of the New Jersey Supreme Court, local judges must devote their full time to their office. The court includes a presiding judge and as many as six additional judges assigned to adjudicate various aspects of the law. A municipal court judge, once referred to as a magistrate, is appointed for a three-year term with no tenure. One of the judge's duties is to have anyone in the community accused of a crime brought before the court to have the charges read and explained. The judge then sets jail and a trial date for the matter to be heard. The municipal judge also issues warrants for arrests and searches, and conducts trials without a jury for offenses within his or her jurisdiction. The judge is concerned with matters of disorderly person offenses, violation of motor vehicle and traffic laws, housing complaints and other matters, including hunting and fishing regulations. The New Jersey League of Women Voters, from whom these materials were culled, notes that 'municipal courts handle more cases than all other courts combined.' Indeed, even indictable matters are often referred back to the municipal court for trial or disposition. While there have been tremendous changes in Newark and the area during the past 310 years, we have been protected by the rule of law that has made society safe and provided order from the time of the Fundamental Agreements to the Newark City Ordinances.