Civil, divorce trials resume in three counties, pause in Passaic

Judicial vacancies down overall, but still ‘critical’ in some jurisdictions

By: - July 5, 2023 4:06 pm

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner during a session of the New Jersey Supreme Court on January 30, 2023. (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

New Jersey courts will resume civil and divorce trials in three counties where they were suspended earlier this year, but persisting judicial shortages will halt such cases in Passaic County and extend moratoriums elsewhere, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner announced Wednesday.

Civil and divorce proceedings will resume immediately in Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties more than five months after they were suspended, but they will remain suspended in a multi-county court jurisdiction covering Hunterdon, Somerset, and Warren counties.

Passaic County, where a quarter of the county’s 28 judgeships are vacant, will stop holding such trials starting July 31.

“The Judiciary’s goal is to serve the public by providing a place to resolve disputes fairly and expeditiously,” Rabner said in a statement. “In order to do so in every vicinage, we respectfully ask the Executive and Legislative branches to continue to address the critical issue of judicial vacancies in a timely manner.”

Rabner in February halted virtually all civil and divorce trials in the two multi-county vicinages, saying there were too few judges there to oversee them in addition to the criminal, juvenile, and domestic violence cases they handled.

Recent judicial confirmations have cut vacancies in Vicinage 15, which covers Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties, from nine to just two and reduced the number of statewide judicial vacancies to 53 — a recent low but still far off the 25 to 30 vacancies the courts consider sustainable.

“Governor Murphy is pleased to see that civil and divorce trials have resumed in Gloucester, Cumberland, and Salem Counties and is eager for the remaining 18 Superior Court nominations he put forth to receive Senate confirmation,” said Natalies Hamilton, a spokesperson for the governor.

Attorneys have started to push their clients to alternate dispute resolution systems in a bid to winnow the number of stalled cases in hopes that doing so will allow some to go to trial, said Carolyn Daly, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers’ New Jersey chapter.

“If everybody’s waiting for judges or a trial date that we can’t even begin to put on the calendar for another year or two, nothing’s going to move,” she said.

Sixty-nine judicial seats were vacant at the time of Rabner’s February announcement, down slightly from 75 when Rabner issued a dire plea to legislators and Gov. Phil Murphy in May 2022. Rabner repeated his plea publicly again this past May, as did Judge Glenn Grant, the administrative director of the courts, in April.

Timothy McGoughran, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, urged the governor to nominate more judges and called on the legislature to hasten confirmations for those already nominated, warning the lack of judges would continue to harm clients.

“The upcoming moratorium in Passaic County will directly impact families in custody, parenting time, and child support disputes, and leave civil litigants — including victims of discrimination, automobile injuries, and medical malpractice — with little recourse as their cases stall,” McGoughran stalled.

Judicial vacancies are expected to tick up again during the summer months, when legislators take their customary recess that can extend into November during legislative election years.

Thirteen judges are expected to retire or resign by the end of the year, and nine will leave by the start of September, including one Passaic County judge, a court spokesperson said.

“It seems to be this never-ending cycle of get more judges, lose more judges,” Daly said. “They can’t work fast enough to get us more judges because I just feel like it’s going to be: bring one vicinage back from suspension and add another one to the suspension list. I think it’s just going to be this constant circle.”

Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) last month said he might call a special legislative session in July to confirm more judges, though it’s unclear how many judges would advance during such a meeting. Eighteen nominees to the Superior Court are awaiting confirmation, including four who were nominated last month and two who were put up for the post in May 2022.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced just four judicial nominees during a summer session last August, each of whom were confirmed by the full chamber the same day.

Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), who chairs the chamber’s judiciary panel, did not respond to requests for comment.

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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.

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