The Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo/New Jersey Monitor)
Disciplinary investigations against New Jersey lawyers declined in 2021, but the court branch tasked with probing alleged attorney misconduct wasn’t spared some of the delays that plagued the courts during the pandemic.
New investigations conducted by the Office of Attorney Ethics declined 12% in 2021, dropping to 768 from the 869 recorded in 2020. The number of formal complaints and other charging documents filed by the office and the 18 ethics committees it oversees saw a sharper 30% decline, falling to 166. That figure was 237 in 2020.
The overall number of attorneys disciplined also fell, dropping 26% to 124 from the 167 recorded in 2020. At the same time, the number of attorneys disbarred for misconduct edged up to 25.
Seven of those attorneys agreed to be disbarred. Among them was Elizabeth Valandingham, who agreed to give up her law license as part of a guilty plea for her role in an alleged pay-to-play scheme in a few New Jersey towns. She was sentenced to three years’ probation in November and fined $75,000.
Another 27 attorneys were suspended, including five who won’t be able to practice law for three years, and 17 others were suspended as part of an emergent matter outside the office’s regular disciplinary investigation process.
At the same time, the ethics watchdog’s case backlog rose, in some cases stretching past time goals set by the New Jersey Supreme Court.
In 2020, 27% of cases exceeded the six-month time goal for attorney ethics investigations. That number rose to 38% last year.
The office’s average investigation backlog rose to 38%, from 27% in 2020, while the ethics committee saw a smaller increase in average backlogged cases, from 39% in 2020 to 43% in 2021.
The pandemic and staffing changes within the Office of Attorney Ethics had contributed to the delays, the office’s director, Charles Centinaro, said.
“Now that the pandemic appears to be under control, we hope, absent unusual circumstances, to see increasing improvements in case processing,” Centinaro said in a brief message attached to the annual report.
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