Six months after chief justice’s dire warning, court vacancies loom large

By: - November 16, 2022 7:05 am

Six months after Chief Justice Stuart Rabner's issued a dire warning about court staffing, 69 Superior Court seats remain empty. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

This story was updated with comment from Natalie Hamilton, an administration spokesperson, at 10:09 a.m.

Nearly six months after New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner issued a dire warning about a shortage of judges within the courts, Gov. Phil Murphy and lawmakers in the Senate have managed to cut court vacancies by just six.

Sixty-nine empty seats remain on the Superior Court, a judiciary spokesperson told the New Jersey Monitor, down from 75 on the day of Rabner’s May speech. At least four judges are expected to retire before the end of 2022.

“It makes you wonder what on earth is happening in Trenton. How can we be still looking at 68 to 70-something vacancies on the trial court?” said Jeralyn Lawrence, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association. “They have to understand that justice not being timely delivered impacts public confidence, impacts public trust, damages families.”

Empty seats on the bench have ballooned wait times and increased trial delays, including for types of cases the judiciary has typically prioritized.

“It is definitely having an impact on litigants and on the Bar Association, there’s no question about it,” said Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris), an attorney and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It’s almost impossible to get a trial date in a family law matter, and those are some very difficult cases for people to deal with.”

Lawrence said Ocean County litigants in one emergent family law case involving a dispute over custody and parenting time were recently told the next available trial date was four months off.

The now long-standing shortages began to accumulate with the start of Murphy’s first term. His predecessor, Gov. Chris Christie, confirmed a slew of judges during his final year in office, leaving just nine empty seats on the bench at the end of 2017.

That number ballooned amid the infighting between Murphy and Democratic legislative leaders that dominated his first two years in office, and it grew further when the pandemic diverted lawmakers’ attention for much of 2020 and 2021.

Some observers feel that attention never returned.

“They’re moving slower than a turtle,” Lawrence said. “There’s no sense of urgency whatsoever to get these vacancies filled.”

So far this legislative session, senators have confirmed 29 new Superior Court judges and approved 24 sitting jurists for tenure. Another seven new judges were confirmed on the final day of the lame duck session in January. In New Jersey, judges are first confirmed for a seven-year term. If renominated and confirmed, they can serve until they turn 70.

On Tuesday, at least 13 would-be judges were awaiting confirmation. One nominee, Nadia Kahf Alqudah, a Wayne family law attorney, has been waiting since March. Five others were nominated in August or September.

Senatorial courtesy, an unwritten rule that allows senators to unilaterally and indefinitely block judicial nominees from their home county or legislative district, complicates the process further.

“When you have three or maybe more senators with courtesy and a governor and everyone’s scrutinizing the candidates, it’s the nature of the business,” said Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union), an attorney who also sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Sometimes it can be a painstaking process.”

A spokesperson for Murphy noted the pace of confirmations in 2022 was among the fastest seen in recent years, despite the lingering shortages.

“In calendar year 2022, 36 new Superior Court judges have been confirmed by the Senate in just over 10 months, making this one of the most productive years for judicial confirmations in recent history,” said Natalie Hamilton, the spokesperson. “Currently, 15 judicial nominees await confirmation by the Senate. The Governor remains committed to identifying qualified and capable individuals to best serve New Jersey.”

Little recent movement

The Senate Judiciary Committee and the full chamber met in August to confirm four new Superior Court judges. Since then, the panel has only met once, when it convened last month to confirm New Jersey Supreme Court Justices Rachel Wainer Apter and Douglas Fasciale and give tenure to seven jurists.

The committee had no meetings scheduled as of Tuesday afternoon, and Sen. Brian Stack, the Senate Judiciary chairman, did not return a request seeking comment.

The shortages have grown so severe that the court’s voluminous case backlog saw three months of consecutive increases in July, August, and September, the first multi-month increase since the backlog began to climb down from its 97,028-case peak last October.

The backlog reached a post-peak low of 76,178 cases in June, but that number grew to 82,434 by September, the latest month for which backlog data is available.

The backlog has increased only one other time since last September. In May, the same month Rabner warned about the judge shortages, backlogged cases rose by about 700.

The courts mark a case as backlogged after a defined period of time, which varies based on the nature of the case, has elapsed without being heard.



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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.