N.J. courts chip away at backlog, but COVID surge could imperil efforts

By: - January 4, 2022 7:00 am

The Essex County Historic Courthouse in Newark (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

More than two years into the pandemic, New Jersey’s courts are struggling with tens of thousands of backlogged cases, and a variant-fueled surge of COVID-19 cases could bloat the heap of unheard cases yet further.

In March 2020 — before the pandemic forced the courts to move all proceedings to virtual spaces — New Jersey’s judiciary reported 23,917 backlogged cases. That count ballooned after the courts shifted to remote settings in the spring of 2020, eventually swelling to a high of 97,032 in September 2021.

The backlog edged down in more recent months, but 94,963 backdated cases remained in November, the latest month for which the Judiciary has released backlog data, and the rapid spread of COVID-19 could hamper efforts to clear long-stalled cases.

“In-person trials have resumed on a limited basis as social distancing requirements — necessary to protect the safety of the public and court staff — place great demands on available space,” said Pete McAleer, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The Judiciary on Thursday announced it will not call jurors into court in person for new trials until Jan. 17. Ongoing in-person trials can continue, but the courts are otherwise moving to reduce the in-person presence of judges and staff for the first two weeks of the year, McAleer said.

Landlord-tenant and foreclosure proceedings, many fueled by recently expired moratoriums, account for the largest share of the stalled cases, though backlogs of criminal, civil, and some family court cases are also present.

The Judiciary marks a case as backlogged if it has not been heard within a certain time period set by the courts. The length of the period varies based on the type of case.

Virtual trials can continue under the Judiciary’s new rules, but widespread court vacancies, already an impediment for trials, threaten to stall future proceedings.

Nowhere is the dearth of judges greater than in Essex County, where 16 vacancies have helped fuel a 25,923-case backlog, the largest in the state. Some of those seats will likely be filled within the week, but the county’s backlog will take time to clear.

“A full complement of judges would help to respond to the many challenges confronting our judicial system,” McAleer said.

Gov. Phil Murphy last month nominated nine individuals to the Superior Court. Seven of those nominations were made to Essex County’s bench, while Burlington and Warren counties each got one prospective judge. Their nominations must be approved by the state Senate.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in December told the New Jersey Monitor those prospective judges could come before his panel on Jan. 6, with votes before the full Senate on Jan. 10.

Scutari, who is expected to become the new Senate president when the next Legislature first convenes on Jan. 11, has floated a series of reforms to cut down the state’s backlog, including a possible expansion of the Judiciary like the one he presided over near the end of Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure in office. In January 2017, Christie signed a bill creating 20 new judgeships to help administer bail reforms.

“Maybe I’ve got to consider continuing to expand the judicial ranks. That’s not unheard of. We just did it, but the process takes a while and it’s a lot of responsibility,” Scutari said. “When you put people on, there’s a very high likelihood they’re going to be there for life, and we’re investing them with extraordinary power, so we have to take our time and make it happen right.”

Scutari also said he might seek to raise the judicial retirement age of 70. He previously backed a proposal with Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset) that would have allowed the Legislature to approve two-year extensions for sitting judges who turn 70, but it was never enacted.

That proposal is on the table for the coming legislative session, but it hasn’t been given full consideration, Scutari said, adding he’d likely find another Republican sponsor for the proposal if he were to push ahead. (Bateman did not seek re-election last year.)

Though more than 480 of Murphy’s nominees have been confirmed since he became governor in 2018, judicial nominees account for a small portion of those approved by the Senate.

In Murphy’s first three years in office, the Senate confirmed 26 of the governor’s judicial nominees.


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.