New Jersey courts' backlog ticked up in July after six months of consecutive decline, and judicial vacancies are rising again. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
The Judiciary’s backlog edged up in July after six months of continuous declines that had cut the number of backburnered cases to their lowest levels since the earliest months of the pandemic.
The persistent backlog — court officials say a jump in backlogged cases is not unusual in the summer — has been aggravated by pandemic-related restrictions and a shortage of judges that could persist for months.
The Senate, which must confirm would-be judges nominated by Gov. Phil Murphy, did not convene in July or August, and there’s no indication it will come back in session in September, either. Court watchers have expressed frustration at lawmakers’ slow pace on this issue.
“I was very disappointed that they didn’t come back in August. I thought they’d throw one day on to move some judges, but they did not,” said Timothy McGoughran, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association. “It’s just unfortunate that the Senate leadership is just not taking this seriously.”
Richard McGrath, a spokesperson for Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), said the prospect of a fall session “remains under active consideration.”
Court officials mark a case as backlogged if the matter has not been heard within a time period set by the Judiciary, with the time varying by the type of case
Between January and June, the courts shed 33,145 backlogged cases, averaging 5,524 cases each month, with the biggest drop in Essex County. The judicial shortage in Essex was so bad in early 2022 that it had the largest backlog of any county.
The statewide backlog became a bit worse in July, with the Judiciary reporting 51,824 backlogged cases, an increase of 476 over the previous month and still more than double the state’s prepandemic backlog.
Backlogged cases in Essex increased by 521 in July. Court officials said an increase in backlogged cases is far from atypical during the summer months. Backlog statistics for August are not yet available.
“All vicinages, and Essex is no exception, experience a bump in backlog during the transition to a new court year,” said Pete McAleer, a spokesperson for the Judiciary.
Essex has virtually eliminated its special civil case backlog — made up mostly of landlord-tenant cases — and had just 830 backlogged cases in that part of the court in July, contributing to the more than 16,000-case decline the county has seen since the start of the year.
The declines were aided by a March 2023 order that transferred landlord-tenant cases filed in the county between January and April to courts in Monmouth, Ocean, and Union counties, McAleer said. Filling out the county’s bench and increasing the availability of other staff aided the effort, he added.
Within the last court year, McAleer said, Essex had cleared 34,000 landlord-tenant cases.
Those transfers appear to have expanded special civil backlogs in some of those counties. Ocean has seen its special civil backlog nearly quadruple since the start of the year, rising from 179 to 865 cases.
In Union, backlogged special civil cases rose by 81% since January, jumping from 707 to 1,280, but Monmouth’s backlog has continued to decline despite the transfers, falling from 428 cases at the start of the year to 288 in July.
Despite the declines, the number of backlogged cases statewide still more than doubles the 23,917-case backlog the Judiciary reported in March 2020. The peak was a 97,032-case backlog reached in September 2021.
Landlord-tenant proceedings have accounted for the overwhelming majority of recent declines. The courts have cleared 25,510 special civil cases — which include landlord-tenant matters — since January, driven mainly by the sharp drops in Essex County.
Election season & judicial vacancies
It’s not clear whether the Legislature will convene again before November’s legislative elections, when all 120 of the body’s seats are on the ballot.
Neither chamber of the Legislature has scheduled any proceedings for the month of September. Though chamber leaders have broad authority to call in their members, legislative schedules are typically released one month in advance.
Rhonda Schaffler — a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), whose chamber plays no formal role in judicial confirmations — said legislative leadership could decide to convene their chambers.
Such a long hiatus isn’t uncommon in New Jersey. Legislators typically take July and August off, and in odd-numbered years, their break often extends past the November election.
“Instead of doing their job in Trenton, they’re all out trying to save their job in the next election,” McGoughran said.
Judicial retirements have continued in the meantime, bringing New Jersey’s judicial vacancies back up to 61 after two months at a legislative standstill. At least five more judges are expected to retire by the end of the year, a court spokesperson said.
The shortages have already had dire effects on some court jurisdictions.
Civil and divorce trials have been on hold for roughly seven months in a court jurisdiction covering Hunterdon, Warren, and Somerset counties. These trials were paused in Passaic County in early July, though they resumed in Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties then.
Eighteen judicial nominees are awaiting Senate confirmation.
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