In Brief

N.J. court chief warns lawmakers about judicial vacancies

By: - April 12, 2022 6:41 am

Seventy-five judgeships in New Jersey are vacant, with another 22 judges expected to retire this year, the courts’ director told lawmakers Monday. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

Members of the judiciary told the Assembly Budget Committee funding levels proposed by Gov. Phil Murphy would cover the state court system’s costs but warned again about the effect of judicial vacancies.

Judge Glenn Grant, the administrative director of the courts, told lawmakers 75 seats on the bench — 16% of the judiciary’s 463 judgeships — are vacant and said the empty seats threaten the courts’ ability to work through a massive case backlog created by the pandemic.

“We simply cannot expect to confront the aftermath of a hundred-year crisis while facing an unprecedented number of judicial vacancies,” he said.

Another 22 judges are expected to retire by the end of this year, said Grant, who addressed the committee Monday as part of the state’s annual budgeting process.

Grant issued the same warning during budget hearings last year, when there were 64 judicial vacancies.

The governor has proposed keeping state funding for the judiciary flat at roughly $852.1 million. The $119.7 million in federal funds Murphy recommends go to the courts marks a slight reduction from last year, but that decline of about 3% reflects a drop in child support cases. The federal government pays for 66 cents of every dollar spent by state child support programs.

The courts are expected to lose $10.4 million in revenues from a pay-as-you-go electronic records system adopted during the pandemic, as it expects in-person access to court terminals that can retrieve documents free of charge to resume in the coming fiscal year.

Judicial vacancies are common, but the number of vacancies, coupled with the backlog, could imperil the state’s guarantee to a speedy trial.

The judiciary marks a case as backlogged if it has not been heard within a certain time period, which varies depending on the nature of the case. Last month, about 87,000 cases were on the courts’ backlog. That’s down from a height of just over 97,000 in September. Just 23,917 backlogged cases were reported in March of 2020.

“The longer we wait, the worse the problem will get,” Grant said. “The challenges we face are not going away and we must work together to respond to them.”

The 46,369 stalled landlord-tenant cases account for most of the backlog.

The Assembly plays no formal role in the confirmation of judges, which is the purview of the Senate. Neither chamber is expected to hold any proceedings apart from budget hearings until May.

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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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