NEPTUNE - “I know how to move a calendar,” Prosecutor James Butler will say, if asked why so many municipal court judges like him.
That may well be true, but there’s so much more to it than that. Yes, Prosecutor Butler can keep things moving on a very busy day in any of the nine courts where he serves as municipal prosecutor. But more importantly, he’s knowledgeable about every case, knows his law and penalties, can explain matters succinctly to a judge, and ends up getting the thanks of both plaintiffs and defendants in most cases.
Make no mistake about it. James Butler is a professional in every sense of the word. Every week, when he gets the dockets for each of his nine courts, occasionally a tenth when he sits in for another prosecutor, he sits down and calls each of the persons involved in each of the cases. He gets as much of the story as possible in advance, explains the law, fines, advantages and disadvantages of a court proceeding, then makes his decision. So by the time the Judge sits on the bench and begins proceedings, Butler can explain the case, advise he’s spoken to the defendant, gotten the plea, usually guilty, and recommends a fine he thinks is most prudent for the judge to impose. The result: literally hours of time saved for plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys and the court in general.
Granted, Butler concedes, the requirement for virtual court proceedings for the past many months has made numerous people on both sides of any issue more eager to listen first and get the matter resolved quicker. It’s obvious, especially when an accused motorist, for example, is handed down a stiff sentence, loss of license for a term and other penalties, then turns around and thanks the judge for his action. The virtual platform also appears to make everyone more courteous, more polite, more eager to be heard, found innocent or guilty, and be on his way. On the court side, there is always generosity as well, both in time frames for paying any fines, and an explanation of the several optional ways it can be paid. Whether such courtesy and rapport continues once court in person resumes, time will tell. Butler said most courts are hopeful that perhaps by spring, in person courts will be back in session. But he, as prosecutor, will continue his time efficient manner of keeping the calendar moving.
Nor do Butler’s explanations and recommendations to the judge take away any power or decision making from the judge himself. In every case, the Judge will accept a plea, then painstakingly go through a series of questions to determine the person making the pleas has explored and had explained to him every option and alternatives. Never does anyone say he hasn’t been educated to it all.
For Butler, it all started back in1982 when he landed his first job soon after graduation with a law degree from Cleveland State University 's Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and was hired as a clerk in the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s office. It wasn’t long after when he was named an assistant prosecutor under the well-known County Prosecutor, later Superior Court Judge Alexander Lehrer. He was with the law firm of Lawson and Kapalko for a year, both attorneys who also went on to be Superior Court Judges in Monmouth County. The next year, the law firm became Lawson and Butler, and Wendell E. Daniels was with the firm, and was the presiding criminal judge of Ocean County. “Isn’t that something,?” Butler will proudly say today, “three judges in Superior Court, and me, a prosecutor in nine different municipalities. If we ever stayed together for all our years, we would probably be the best known African American law office in the state.”
You can see how Butler’s demeanor in virtual court puts everyone at ease. He gives casual warm and friendly greetings to all, while at the same time remaining aloof and professional; he’ll joke with a defendant who sounds confused or rattled by the virtual appearance, putting him at ease and more relaxed in presenting his case. He defers to the judge in all cases but is firm in being certain he has explained every detail so the judge can make the ultimate decision.
For this prosecutor, his dedication goes back to his childhood and a father he still reveres as “the greatest man I ever knew.” Though the senior Butler died 31 years ago, his son doesn’t ever forget the lessons he learned from him growing up in Neptune. “My dad said you always have to treat everyone with respect. So I do. And I simply love doing my job and helping others.”
Because he has been prosecutor for so many municipalities for so many years….at least 25 years in Neptune, and close to 20 in Highlands and Oceanport, you could say Butler has been a prosecutor for well over 100 years. He has been Atlantic Highlands prosecutor for four years, and also serves in Monmouth Beach, Shrewsbury and Little Silver. In Asbury Park alone, he has been the city’s prosecutor for 37 years consecutively. Nor does he see himself quitting anytime soon.
“I do it for three reasons,” he’ll explain in that fast paced, low toned voice, “first of all because I love it, secondly because my dad would want me to do it, I’m helping people and third….” His own hearty laugh will break up his sentence before he continues, “I don’t fish, I don’t golf, I don’t horseback ride, I don’t hunt…But I love my cruises. As long as I can get my vacations and take my cruises, life is just fine.”
There’s a group of friends who take these cruises, mostly in the Caribbean, all times of year, all on the large cruise ships equipped with everything from hot tubs and elegant dining rooms. “I work hard so I can take my cruises at leisure,” he’ll laugh heartedly, with a final explanation, “that’s just me. I enjoy life, both working at it and enjoying it. And every day I thank God for it. It’s God that gets me up in the morning. And I couldn’t be happier. ”