The New Jersey Senate on Thursday approved 11 more candidates for judges of the state’s Supreme Court. This should ease the backlog in some parts of the state, but leave others, primarily Essex County, still struggling.
With the final confirmation of these new judges, the number of vacancies is reduced to 65, more than twice the number of vacancies from 25 to 30, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Six weeks ago, the court administrator first warned lawmakers that vacancies are a significant problem. Since then, Gov. Phil Murphy has quietly either nominated or announced plans to nominate 21 more judges. About half of them will be reappointed as incumbent judges.
Last week Chief Justice Stuart Rabner make another serious warningstating that the absence of judges has played a large role in the fact that 6,800 people are in custody pending trial, and in civil cases such as complex cases of bodily harm, the waiting period is as long as four years.
It has not yet been announced when the state Supreme Court will have a full set of seven judges.
One of Murphy’s candidates remains deadlocked in the Senate, and Murphy has yet to nominate a candidate for a second court opening. The third vacancy is expected on July 7, when assistant judge Barry Albin will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 years.
Some nominations are under consideration
26 candidates are currently being considered for the Supreme Court, although legislative sources have said some will not move forward due to the politeness of senators, an unwritten rule that allows senators to block candidates from their constituencies. Even if all these candidates were nominated in advance, there would still be no more than 50 judges in the courts. And at least 20 judges will resign by the end of the year, the courts believe.
Prior to Thursday’s approval, which the Senate quickly approved by 35-0 votes, the number of vacancies reached a record high of 76. There are 433 first-instance court positions across the state.
The problem is more pressing in some counties than in others. In several counties there is only one discovery. But no new judges have been confirmed for Essex County, which has the most vacancies in the state – 12, more than 20% of judicial positions. And more than 20% of judges are currently unfilled in four counties – Atlantic, Hunterdan, Union and Warren.
Rabner said that for the past 2 and a half years, the courts have had an average of 50 or more vacancies each month.
Some ongoing court delays were caused when courts were closed for face-to-face hearings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the lack of judges makes it difficult for the system to catch up while new cases are added.
Rabner said judges should set priorities. These include criminal cases in which a person is in prison – hundreds of people are now in custody for more than the two-year limit guaranteed by criminal justice reform, which has effectively eliminated bail – and family lawsuits involving minors and complaints about domestic violence. As a result, he said, in some counties, a couple wishing to divorce could take five years.
“The problem is just understandable,” Rabner said at the New Jersey Bar Association’s annual convention last Friday. “We need more judges to provide the level of services that the population is entitled to receive. And we need the help of other branches to solve this problem. “
Who is to blame?
There are many culprits. Some criticize Murphy for not nominating enough candidates and not working with senators to propose candidates they are willing to support. Murphy’s office said it was doing its best to nominate quality candidates, and appreciated the Senate confirmation on Thursday.
“For the past four years, we have remained committed to ensuring that vacancies in our courts are filled by highly qualified people who demonstrate unwavering honesty and dedication to service, and who look like the New Jersey residents they vowed to serve. I look forward to further progress in filling vacancies at the Supreme Court, ”Murphy said in a statement, adding that he hoped his other candidates would“ pass through the Senate soon ”.
Sources in the Senate say the chamber can act on nominations only after they are nominated, but some critics have criticized the Senate for supporting the politeness process rather than allowing each candidate to be considered.
Judges confirmed on Thursday: Rahat Babar of Collingswood, Supti Bhattacharya of Ewing, Jodi Buer of Lawrenceville, James Buchi of Hadonfield, Stevie Chambers of Jersey City, David Nasta of Upper Saddle Racery, Mississauver Milburn, Jose Vilarina of Florham Park, Gray Wilson of Lawrenceville and Russell Waitenko of West Windsor. Judges are not always appointed to their constituencies.
Judges are initially approved for a seven-year term. Upon reaffirmation, they receive a lifelong rendezvous. Judges must now retire at the age of 70, although the bill, which began to pass through the legislature, will raise the age to 72.