The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed an Ocean County double murder conviction after finding that the trial judge improperly questioned defense witnesses, while, at the same time, bolstering the testimony of the state’s witnesses. In State v Obrien, the Court, in its decision, discussed the limitations on a trial judge and the questioning of witnesses, stating that the defendant is entitled to face just one adversary. Questioning by the trial judge that amounts to cross examination of defense witnesses, and bolsters the state’s case, cast a cloud over the testimony of all and sways the scales justice unfairly on the side of the state. Of course, the holding could also be applied to questioning from the bench which would illicit responses that tend to lend credence to the testimony of the defendant.
This decision has applicability to all New Jersey court proceedings, including those in the municipal courts. Unfortunately, this type of judicial activism is not uncommon. In municipal courts, prosecutors with heavy case loads do not always have time to prepare fully for trials. In most municipal court matters, the facts are in the state’s corner. However, when they are not, or where there is the threat of dismissal on procedural grounds, trial judges may inadvertently taint the testimony of witnesses in an attempt to gather all the relevant facts. It should be noted that most judges have tried their fair share of cases. Therefore, instinct may kick in, and the effect of the involvement may not be fully contemplated. Nonetheless, the judge is supposed to make a decision based upon the evidence before the court. Trials are, in large part, a contest between attorneys, and preparedness plays a large role in the process. Failing to ask the right question or missing key objections is part of the game in an adversarial proceeding.
But one must remember, the overwhelming majority of court proceedings are conducted in a fair and balanced fashion. Although this case highlights a situation where the trials judge went to far, this is not the norm. Most judges are impartial and measured in their approach.
This decision is