After $6M renovation, NJ may have to spend $1M more to fix a room
BELVIDERE — After spending nearly $6 million renovating the historic Warren County Courthouse, state taxpayers may be on the hook for another million dollars to fix just a single courtroom.
The controversy over tiny Courtroom No. 2 has become one of the longest-litigated cases in New Jersey courts with no end in sight. It raises a longstanding issue of how much of a responsibility the state-run courts should be on local taxpayers.
After the initial renovations, the Office of the Public Defender in 2011 objected to the courtroom because a load-bearing column blocked the sight of defendants to the witness stand or the jury box.
In 2012, a Superior Court judge ruled that the courtroom was “constitutionally inadequate.” The Warren County prosecutor appealed. The case was moved to Middlesex County. Then to federal District Court. Then back to Middlesex.
In 2015, Warren County reached a deal with the state to split the $15,000 cost to rearrange the courtroom.
But the Public Defender’s Office said the minor improvements were not good enough, with continuing line-of-sight problems, not enough space or available seats.
The county has previously estimated the cost to fully reconstruct the courtroom to be as much as $1 million. In the meantime, the county is down to just a single courtroom for jury trials.
In the latest turn, an appellate panel this week ruled that the case could not be dismissed, calling it a “significant legal controversy between branches of government” that “demands a more comprehensive examination.”
The appellate decision asks a judge in Middlesex County to consider appointing a special master, a type of independent mediator who could conduct hearings and appoint experts before offering the judge a recommendation.
“This controversy involves several government entities, funded from separate sources, whose responsibilities and interests overlap but are not strictly alighted. The issues implicate the due process rights of litigants whose matters are tried in the courtroom, as well as the budgetary concerns of Warren County,” the appellate decision says.
“Any final decision reached regarding the courtroom will have long-term consequences.”
Warren County Freeholder Director Edward Smith said Wednesday that he objects to county taxpayers having to foot the bill for reconstruction because the state signed off on the original plans.
Smith said Courtroom No. 2 was fine until the courts decided to cannibalize space for administrative offices.
Since 1993, court employees have been the responsibility of the state Judiciary. But the court buildings remain the responsibility of the counties. Unlike municipal courts that funnel a share of their fines and fees to municipal coffers, counties do not get revenue from Superior Court.
The Warren courthouse dates to 1826 and hadn't had major work done since 1961.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also on New Jersey 101.5: