New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner is urging legislators and Gov. Phil Murphy to take action on judicial vacancies. (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)
New Jersey courts will suspend civil and divorce trials in six counties later this month amid persistently high judicial vacancies that have left their courts understaffed and overwhelmed, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner announced Tuesday.
The suspensions affect two multi-county court jurisdictions: Vicinage 13 (Hunterdon, Somerset, and Warren counties), where five of 20 judicial positions are vacant, and Vicinage 15 (Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties), where there are nine vacancies among the 28 judicial seats.
“There are simply not enough judges at this time to conduct civil and matrimonial trials in either vicinage,” Rabner said in a statement. “Without additional relief, we may well face the same situation in other vicinages in the near future.”
Rabner urged legislators and Gov. Phil Murphy to take action.
The suspensions will go into effect on Feb. 21, though those courts may continue to hear some civil or matrimonial cases under “very limited circumstances,” Rabner said.
The suspensions would allow those courts to prioritize criminal, juvenile, and domestic violence cases, he added.
Rabner, the New Jersey Bar Association, and others have raised alarms over New Jersey courts’ staggering vacancy rates for nearly a year. On Tuesday, there were 69 vacancies on the bench, down just six from last May, when Rabner delivered a dire warning as New Jersey court vacancies reached a record high of 75.
Rabner last year said the courts could operate sustainably with 25 to 30 vacancies.
The number of statewide vacancies is unchanged from Nov. 16 despite the 10 new Superior Court judges confirmed by the Senate in the intervening months, as judicial retirements countered any progress.
Jeralyn Lawrence, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, puts the blame on Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature.
“They’ve known about this. They’ve had ample opportunity to ensure to New Jerseyans that this day never would come, and they have thumbed their nose at every call, every red flag, every plea for help to solve this catastrophic disaster that they alone have created,” Lawrence said.
The vacancies have caused problems elsewhere. Rabner last May said one vicinage had suspended divorce trials, noting litigants in other types of cases elsewhere could expect to wait up to five years for a trial.
Hudson County has also unofficially suspended divorce trials and does not expect to resume holding them until spring 2024, said Ronald Lieberman, president-elect of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers of New Jersey.
“The sum of the substance becomes that the litigants, the parties, our clients are in this unfair limbo for the next however many months, and that’s the real unfairness of it all,” he said.
The vacancies have prevented courts from clearing a mammoth case backlog accumulated during the pandemic, even as court officials withdrew strict pandemic rules that limited in-person proceedings.
The court’s backlog has increased every month since last April, entirely arresting a decline that began in October 2021. The courts marked 84,494 backlogged cases in December, including 2,661 in Vicinage 13 and 3,612 in Vicinage 15.
“We recognize that when the doors of the courthouse are closed — even partially — people entitled to their day in court suffer real harm,” Rabner said. “We therefore respectfully call on the executive and legislative branches to address the current vacancy crisis in Vicinages 13 and 15 as well as other parts of the state.”
At present, 17 would-be Superior Court judges are awaiting confirmation before the Senate, though only one of those nominees, Demetrica Todd-Ruiz of Pittsgrove, would sit on a bench in one of the six counties Rabner named Tuesday. Todd-Ruiz’s nomination has been at a standstill since last June.
“Recognizing the extraordinary challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, the governor is eager to see the remaining 17 pending Superior Court nominations he put forth receive Senate confirmation and will continue to nominate new, highly qualified candidates this year,” said Natalie Hamilton, a spokesperson for the governor.
Some of the pending nominations have undoubtedly been stalled by senatorial courtesy, an unwritten but immovable rule that allows senators to unilaterally and indefinitely block gubernatorial nominees from their home counties or legislative districts, but it isn’t clear how many.
A spokesperson for Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), a former longtime Senate Judiciary chairman, declined to comment.
The Judiciary expects 10 judges to retire by July 1, when lawmakers are expected to depart on their customary summer break after approving the annual budget, and at least 13 more are expected to retire before the end of the year.
It’s not unusual for legislators’ break to extend until after Election Day during election years — all 120 legislative seats are on the ballot in November — though the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full chamber could still meet during that time.
Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), the current Judiciary Committee chair, said the panel would meet last summer to address judicial vacancies. It met once that August to confirm four Superior Court judges.
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