Catching Up Again, With the Supreme Court and the Appellate Division

After this post about the Supreme Court’s busy August, that Court decided two more cases. Both were criminal appeals. Here are summaries:

State v. Hannah, ___ N.J. ___ (2021). This was a case involving murder and other charges. Defendant was found guilty. After a lengthy procedural history, the Supreme Court voted 4-3 to grant post-conviction relief and vacate the conviction. The grounds were that defendant’s counsel rendered constitutionally deficient representation, and that, but for the deficient representation, there was a reasonable probability of a different outcome at trial. Justice Albin wrote the majority opinion in which Chief Justice Rabner (who filed a separate concurring opinion suggesting that the Supreme Court Committee on Evidence be asked to consider whether Evidence Rule 803(c)(25), regarding statements against interest, should be amended to conform to a parallel Federal Rule of Evidence), and Justices LaVecchia and Pierre-Louis joined. The dissent was by Justice Solomon, joined by Justices Patterson and Fernandez-Vina.

State v. Dangcil, ___ N.J. ___ (2021). Justice Solomon authored this opinion for a unanimous Court. Affirming the Law Division and the Appellate Division, the Court held that the hybrid process for jury selection adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was constitutionally valid. The Court rebuffed defendant’s arguments that the process deprived him of his rights to presence and representation and did not ensure a jury drawn from a representative cross-section of the community. The stage of empaneling a jury is not, the Court said, a “critical stage” at which a defendant has the right to be present. And defendant had failed to substantiate his claim that the jury pool was not representative of the community. Despite that failure in this particular case, the Court directed that, going forward, the Court ordered that the Administrative Office of the Courts begin collecting demographic information about jurors, including identified racial identity, ethnicity, and gender, disclosure of which is to be voluntary.

Without slighting criminal cases that the Appellate Division has decided recently, here are summaries of two civil decisions, both of them issued on the same day last week:

Linden Democratic Committee v. City of Linden, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2021). This appeal involved the question of who was entitled to serve out an unexpired term for a particular seat on the Linden City Council. When the seat became vacant as a result of the incumbent’s election as Council President, the Linden Democratic Committee (“the Committee”) submitted three names for potential appointment to the vacant seat. The governing body declined to seat any of them and instead voted to allow the seat to remain vacant. The Committee then selected one of the three rejected names and swore in that person as a council member. The case went to court and the Law Division upheld the appointment of that individual. On appeal, however, the Appellate Division reversed, in an opinion by Judge Messano that construed the Municipal Vacancy Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:16-1 et seq., as permitting the governing body to leave the seat vacant. In reaching his result, Judge Messano applied de novo review to the issues of statutory interpretation presented and offered an extensive analysis of the statute and its history.

Buddy v. Knapp, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2021). This opinion resolved three appeals. Writing for the court, Judge DeAlmeida concisely summarized the nature of the appeals, the issues, and the result, at the start of his opinion:

“These appeals, which we consolidate solely for the purposes of this opinion, arise from two motor vehicle accidents that occurred about a year apart in approximately the same location under similar circumstances. In both instances, a driver traveling westbound on Route 322 in Folsom Borough made an illegal left turn in the direction of one of two driveway entrances to a WaWa convenience store and struck a motorcycle traveling eastbound on the highway. In the first accident, the motorcycle driver was killed and his wife, who was a passenger, seriously injured. In the second accident, the motorcycle driver was seriously injured. The injured parties and the estate of the decedent filed suits against the entity that owns the convenience store and the State, which owns the highway and the land on which the store’s driveway entrances are situated, alleging a number of claims sounding in negligence.

“Plaintiffs appeal orders of the Law Division granting summary judgment to defendants. The court concluded that the convenience store owner did not owe a duty of care to the injured parties and, further, that the State is immune from plaintiffs’ claims under the Tort Claims Act (TCA), N.J.S.A. 59:1 -1 to 13-10. Plaintiffs also appeal an order denying their motion to consolidate their complaints. We affirm.”

Judge DeAlmeida applied de novo review, as required on appeals of orders granting summary judgment. WaWa owed no duty of care to prevent illegal conduct by drivers on a road controlled not by WaWa (since the road was not on WaWa’s premises) but by the State. Judge DeAlmeida cited several prior appellate cases that supported that result. And the re were multiple TCA immunities, which Judge DeAlmeida discussed in detail, that justified affirmance of summary judgment in favor of the State.