Jul 062008

Last week I was in New Jersey fulfilling a few more of its unconstitutional CLE requirements. I’ve objected before to how onerous these requirements are for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they require attorneys to physically be in the state to fulfill them. This requirement poses an undue burden on out-of-state residents, who must travel great and expensive distances to get to those classes, and thus runs afoul of the US Constitution, which prohibits such discrimination against them.

I had not realized until a few weeks ago though that it is apparently possible to schedule an appointment to watch video replays of the CLE lectures on dates other than when they are formally presented. They still cost twice as much to view than the live lectures (again discriminating against out-of-state residents who are necessarily unable to fly in and out for the more affordable yet randomly-scheduled in-person versions) and are still not given on all dates, but it’s something, I suppose.

So on this occasion I watched two videos to satisfy the third year requirements. (Inconveniently I must still do the second year’s sometime in the next six months lest I become ineligible to practice anyway, but I was unable to schedule their viewing during the date I could be in New Jersey.) The courses were “Municipal Courts” and “Landlord/Tenant Law.”

I have some interest in the latter subject. My 2L summer I clerked at Bay Area Legal Aid providing support to the public on housing matters. Ever since I had my difficulty with my former Berkeley landlord I’ve become aware just how important it is to have equitable and systematic housing law to protect both parties. But my experience has been entirely with California law, Berkeley law in particular. I previously knew little about New Jersey rental law.

So it was interesting to discover that New Jersey appears to be an enormous rent controlled jurisdiction. By contrast, California is not. Certain municipalities impose their own local rent control, usually to regulate rent escalations and require evictions to be for good cause. But neither control is exerted at the state level, as they seem to both be in New Jersey. New Jersey appears to have some complicated accounting system governing rent rates, but more interestingly New Jersey seems to require, with only a few exceptions, evictions to only be for good cause. The lecturer put it as such, “In New Jersey there’s no tenancy for years or tenancy for months. There’s only tenancies for life.” In other words, a tenant can perpetually insist upon a new lease whenever a previous one expires as long as he does nothing (like withhold rent) that would allow him to be evicted for good cause.

Having had my crummy landlord threaten me with an unlawful eviction (He’d tried to invoke Berkeley’s “mother-in-law” exception from the good cause requirement, an exception which allows landlords to recover units from current tenants for immediate family members. Fortunately I’d been privvy to the rumor that he’d previously gotten caught for having quite a few “mothers-in-law” and was able to call his bluff) I’m acutely aware just how important it is not to have one’s housing taken away. On the other hand, landlords in rent-controlled jurisdictions often complain that with so much regulatory control over their rental business there’s no incentive to maintain or improve the housing stock.

In California, because the state default is less control, there are just little pockets (e.g., Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco) where the landlord-tenant economies are different. But the nature of these particular localities makes it difficult to compare the effect of their rent control law with the effect of its absence in equivalent jurisdictions since there really are no equivalent jurisdictions.

I would therefore be curious to know whether or not there’s any data from New Jersey to track the effects of this kind of rent control regulation. Because it applies to all sorts of towns — big, small, urban, suburban — surely one couldn’t look at one place with a lot of blight and directly blame rent control, when so many other places under the same rules have so little. On the other hand, it would similarly be helpful to know if the rent control had a positive effect on any communities. Some are stable — do they have this kind of rental law to thank for it? Then what about the communities that are not stable?
Meanwhile the other lecture was on Municipal Courts. For a bit it almost looked like it would manage to be interesting and helpful, but it turned out to be the exact opposite.

There are certain types of offenses, it seems, that are adjudicated in New Jersey municipal courts. (As far as I can tell, this system has no direct parallel with anything in California, but then again I’m not a criminal law expert in California either.) Various traffic violations, DWIs, and certain other petty crimes (like, if I heard correctly, shoplifting) are heard in these courts. Where the lecture was almost helpful was in listening to the experienced practitioners share some of their war stories about how they were able to massage the system to get the best results for their clients, as well as some advice about how to determine what a good result might be (for instance, the way insurance, DMV regulations, and the municipal court system interact means that certain positive results in court may lead to negative consequences with regard to the others and leave the defendants worse off than if they’d lost entirely).

But then the lecture got useless when they started walking us line by line through the traffic code and pontificating on the current use of breathalizer evidence. Which is not to say that it’s a worthless topic: DWI is a serious crime, and the system New Jersey uses to collect proof of intoxication raises enormous questions of criminal procedure. It might have been an interesting discussion, but not when one is forced to endure it. As the minutes turned to hours, and trains and appointments threatened to be missed while the lecture droned on past its promised length I came to really resent my forced imprisonment. It was all for naught anyway, since between the time the lecture was recorded and when we watched it the New Jersey Supreme Court has weighed in with some important rulings rendering much of what the lecturer said moot. Sure, if we ever had to handle one of these cases we’d certainly need to learn the law. But until that time, being flooded with nuanced and soon-to-be-outdated detail was nothing but an enormous waste of our time.

But then, New Jersey seems to think nothing of wasting its lawyers time and money. It makes me wonder why they even bother to “provide” any of this so-called training for their lawyers, since their glib commandeering of our lives suggests that they don’t believe they are anything of value in the first place.

 Posted by at 2:21 pm

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