WILDWOOD – “Do you have an executioner?” “What was your most idiotic case?” “Can you overturn a jury decision?”
Those were some of the questions fourth-grade students at Glenwood Avenue Elementary School in Wildwood asked Cape May County Criminal Court Judge Sarah Beth Johnson when she visited them as part of the One Judge-One School (OJOS) program.
According to a court-generated report, the program was introduced in the 2012-2013 school year after Superior Court Judge Mark Sandson made the suggestion to pair judges with area high schools.
The purpose of the program is to provide an introduction to the judiciary and the day-to-day operations of the court.
In January 2013, Assignment Judge Julio L. Mendez announced the partnership between the Superior Court and local schools in Cape May and Atlantic counties. With the support of Mendez and Trial Court Administrator Howard H. Berchtold, Jr., the program has flourished as schools have integrated it into their curriculum.
As the OJOS program continued to grow, more elementary schools requested judges to visit their students. OJOS Jr. was born with the intention of the program to focus on topics that are age specific to grade-school children.
Johnson began the meeting by introducing her law clerk Kathryn Morris and Sheriff’s Officer John McKeown, who accompanied her to the presentation, and described what they do in the court system.
“Kathryn spends a lot of time on the phone and sending emails scheduling cases. McKeown makes sure everybody respects the rules of the court,” Johnson said.
The American Bar Association theme for Law Day May 1, 2019, was “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society,” and Johnson spoke to the students about those rights.
“The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to assemble and the right to petition the government,” Johnson explained.
She said free speech included expression and asked if the students could think of a mode of expression that students might have heard of. A girl in the audience responded, “What clothes you can wear to school.”
Johnson said that issue has been before the courts many times as schools have sought to limit the clothes children can wear to school.
Johnson was appointed a judge in December 2017, following in the footsteps of her father, retired Atlantic County Superior Court judge and “Boardwalk Empire” author Nelson Johnson.
Sarah Beth Johnson said the program maintains public faith in the court system.
“We try to make sure the court is open to the kids," that "they are comfortable if they ever have to deal with the court. We are promoting goodwill and letting them see that we were once where they are and they can do this, too,” she said.
Johnson explained that she completed high school, college, three years of law school and spent a year as a law clerk before becoming a lawyer.
“It is a lot of schoolwork, but I really enjoy my job,” she said.
Johnson answered questions from the students, including the three at the start of this article.
“Do you have an executioner?”
“The State of New Jersey does not have the death penalty, so there are no longer executions here,” said Johnson.
“What was your most idiotic case?”
Johnson explained, “A defendant pled guilty to a minor offense, but he was going to jail. He begged me to give him some time before serving his sentence to get some things from his house. I agreed because he was not dangerous. However, he failed to mention that the bank had foreclosed on his home and changed the locks. He couldn’t get in so he broke into the home and was arrested by police the same day I let him go.”
“Can you overturn a jury decision?”
“I can only overturn a guilty verdict because once you have been found not guilty, that verdict cannot be overturned. If I feel the jury has made a mistake, I can dismiss the verdict. That hasn’t happened in my court,” Johnson said.
Vicinage Training Coordinator for the Superior Court of New Jersey Ellen Procida also attended the presentation and led the students in a game of “Jeopardy” after Johnson finished her presentation to see what the students had learned. There were no wrong answers.
Ashtion Blose, a fourth grader, said Johnson sparked an interest in the legal profession.
“I may go to law school and become a lawyer or even a judge. Hearing Judge Johnson made me think I can pursue that.”
To contact Carl Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org.