Courts official renews call for more judges

More trials statewide could be stopped for lack of judges

By: - April 18, 2023 6:59 am

Courts' administrative director says 22 more retirements — enough to wipe out 11 months of confirmations — are expected by year's end. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

A top Judiciary official warned lawmakers that persistent court vacancies that have halted civil and divorce trials in six counties could soon cause stoppages elsewhere in the state unless more judges are sent to the bench.

This is the third year in a row that Judge Glenn Grant — the administrative director of the courts — has told a legislative budget committee that the state needs more judges.

Grant’s warning echoed what New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Stuart Rabner said in a speech last May, when Rabner said peoples’ “lives are on indefinite hold” because of trial delays related to the judicial shortage. At the time, 75 state Superior Court seats were empty. On Monday, that number had fallen to 58.

That’s still too high, Grant said.

Judge Glenn A. Grant is administrative director of the New Jersey Courts. (Photo courtesy of New Jersey courts)

“We need to get our number between 25 and 30 to have a realistic chance to dig ourselves out of this hole, and it’s going to take at least three years for us to do that. There’s no magic,” Grant told the Assembly Budget Committee Monday.

Grant noted that at least 22 judges are set to retire by the end of the year, either voluntarily or because they will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70.

“Merely keeping pace with retirements does not help us dig out of the hole,” he said.

The Legislature’s calendar makes it unlikely that many judicial nominees will move until the fall.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which must approve gubernatorial nominees before they are confirmed by the full Senate, has no meetings scheduled this month and is not expected to meet regularly in July or August. The Assembly plays no formal role in the confirmation of gubernatorial nominees.

And it’s not clear how active the Legislature will be until mid-November. During legislative election years in the past — this year is one — both chambers take summer recess and do not reconvene until after Election Day.

Rabner in February suspended civil and divorce trials in two multi-county court jurisdictions encompassing Hunterdon, Somerset, Warren, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem Counties, saying judges were needed for criminal, juvenile, and domestic violence cases.

“Without additional relief, without more judges, we may well be faced with similar needs to suspend civil and matrimonial trials in other vicinages,” Grant said Monday.

The vacancies have pushed the courts to recall retired judges at levels far exceeding historical rates. A decade ago, the courts tended to have about 40 retired judges recalled to the bench at any given time, Grant said. Today, that number ranges between 75 and 80.

But Grant suggested further expanding recalls might have diminishing returns, noting limits on recalled judges’ salaries and the number of former judges willing to return to the bench.

“Not all judges are interested in coming back on recall,” he said.

A suggestion to move New Jersey’s judiciary to an elected system — this exists in 38 states — has spread in legal circles in recent days. But Grant Monday reiterated his support for the advice and consent process through which New Jersey staffs its bench, calling it far superior to systems where judges are elected officials.

Money matters

The Judiciary on Monday requested $6 million in additional funding for its pretrial release program to account for sharp increases in the number of criminal defendants awaiting their day in court since the start of the pandemic.

Over the past three years, Grant said, the number of people released while awaiting criminal trials has risen by more than 50%, jumping from roughly 30,000 to 46,000 due to court delays related to the pandemic and judge shortage.

The administrator said the courts would require a similar amount — between $6 million and $7 million — to expand the Judiciary’s accessibility to non-English speakers, including technological improvements that would allow court officials to issue notices in multiple languages.

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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.