Judicial vacancies are an embarrassment and our elected leaders are to blame
New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner last week said he is halting all civil and divorce trials in six counties because there aren't enough judges to oversee them. (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)
When Stuart Rabner, chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, first publicly aired his warnings about the state’s judicial vacancy crisis in May, our elected leaders said they were on it.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s office said the governor was working “vigorously” to put more judges on the bench, while Sen. Brian Stack, who chairs the Senate’s judiciary committee, said the panel would meet in the summer months if necessary to advance judicial nominees.
Flash forward nine months and barely any progress has been made. There were 75 judicial vacancies statewide when Rabner sounded the alarm last year. There were 69 when he did it again last week.
That summer judiciary meeting? They advanced four judges during that.
Meanwhile, courts have a staggering backlog of nearly 85,000 cases.
Rabner took an extraordinary step on Tuesday, in what looks like an effort to goad (embarrass?) our government into doing its job: He suspended all civil and divorce trials in six counties so judges can prioritize criminal, juvenile, and domestic violence cases.
This isn’t just a problem in those six counties. A representative with the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers of New Jersey told us Hudson County has halted matrimonial trials until the spring of 2024.
This is embarrassing. Our elected leaders have dropped the ball on this, and I don’t see anywhere near the sense of urgency to fix this problem that it demands. The Senate is sitting about 20 judicial nominees awaiting confirmation. One of them has been at a standstill since June.
Sen. Michael Testa Jr. sits on the committee and has a lot of knowledge in this area: He’s a lawyer, his father and uncle were Superior Court judges, and his cousin recently became one, too.
“My concern is the direct impact this is starting to have on people,” said Testa, a Republican from Cumberland County. “Divorces, child support disputes, custody issues — there are some very vulnerable people out there whose cases might not be heard due to Justice Rabner’s decree.”
Testa was hesitant to play the blame game, though he said the Murphy administration needs to work harder with legislators to identify potential judges who can win confirmation in the Senate. Republican Sen. Doug Steinhardt, another lawyer, echoed Testa’s call for greater cooperation between Murphy’s office and the Legislature.
“We have a responsibility as the government to make sure that we’re doing our jobs and make sure the Judiciary functions efficiently,” Steinhardt said. “It’s not functioning efficiently right now.”
At an unrelated press conference Wednesday, Murphy said he shares Rabner’s concerns about the lack of judges and insisted his office is doing what it can to fill the bench.
“I think last year was far and away our biggest year. We got 40-something judges across the goal line. We have a good amount in the pipeline,” he said.
I asked a Murphy spokeswoman how many potential nominations are in this pipeline. She declined to answer.
Like Rabner, Jeralyn L. Lawrence, the president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, has been sounding the alarm about judicial vacancies for a while now. Lawrence said Murphy’s touting of the “40-something” figure — it’s 45 specifically — is part of the problem. He may be moving judges along, she said, but he’s not moving along nearly as many as the state needs.
“If you advanced 45 and you have 69 vacancies, that means you needed to advance 114,” Lawrence told me. “It’s simple math.”
There are a few things Murphy and lawmakers can do to help end this: meet more regularly to confirm nominees (the Senate Judiciary Committee is meeting Monday for just the fifth time since August); identify more people from the six counties identified by Rabner who want to become judges; end senatorial courtesy, the nonsensical practice of letting senators unilaterally block nominees from their home counties and districts; and raise the mandatory retirement age for judges.
Lawrence said just that first thing would do. She wants an “immediate, multiple-day summit at the Statehouse in Trenton where people would be encouraged not to leave until we agreed on a list of at least 69 people.” Anything other than that, she said, won’t solve the problem.
Testa told me that when he was in law school starting in the late ‘90s, New Jersey’s bench was always considered one of the best in the nation. He worries about how it’s seen now.
“This does something to tarnish that reputation,” he said.
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Terrence T. McDonald