Solving the NJ judicial vacancy problem would be a giant task for Governor Murphy
Judicial leaders have warned of a stable of overworked judges as they scramble to clear a staggering backlog of cases, but if Gov. Phil Murphy is to give the courts a full cohort this year, he will need to have it confirmed more judges than it has since taking office in January 2018.
Seventy-three seats on the Superior Court bench are empty and another 24 retirements are expected by the end of 2022, Justice Glenn Grant, the courts’ administrative director, told lawmakers last week. There are also two vacancies on the New Jersey Supreme Court.
This could leave 97 vacancies by the end of the year.
The result is an understaffed court system facing a slow process with just 14 judges awaiting confirmation as state courts grapple with a colossal backlog of cases created by the pandemic that prosecutors and public defenders, exacerbates the effects of judicial vacancies.
“It is unsustainable. We cannot continue to impose this demand on our judges with this extraordinary workload pending and have a record number of vacancies,” Grant said. “Even if you put 20 judges tomorrow, we have 22 judges leaving by the end of the year. We are still in the same place.
Grant said the courts could operate without overburdening its judges if vacancies were reduced to between 25 and 30.
Bringing court vacancies down to a sustainable level would require 67 justices to be appointed and confirmed this year, a monumental undertaking for a governor who has only added 62 new justices to the bench since taking office — but not impossible. The Senate confirmed 63 justices in the final year of Governor Chris Christie’s term, reducing vacancies to nine at the end of 2017.
Alyana Alfaro Post, the governor’s press secretary, said Murphy’s administration was considering dozens of judicial candidates.
“He will continue to work with the Senate through the notice and consent process to appoint qualified and capable individuals to the bench,” she said.
The judicial confirmation process is not designed to be fast.
To advance, candidates must seek approval from their home county senators and the Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee, a branch of the state bar. They must also be vetted and submit questionnaires to the administration and the Senate before being approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and, later, by the full Senate. Each of these steps presents a potential obstacle.
The Senate has yet to confirm the 14 justices put in place by Murphy this year. If confirmed, these appointments could fill vacancies in Camden, Burlington and Morris counties. Three seats are vacant in Camden County, while Morris and Burlington each have a single vacancy.
Four of the remaining candidates are on the bench from Mercer County, which has seven vacancies, and three were nominated from Essex County, which has 12 vacancies, the most vacancies in the state.
The remaining candidate is vying for a spot on the Passaic County bench, where five seats are empty.
There are no nominees awaiting confirmation in the counties of Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Somerset, D ‘Union or Warren. Vacancies in those counties range from eight in Bergen to one each in Burlington, Hunterdon, Cape May and Cumberland. There are no vacancies in Sussex or Salem.
Nine Murphy judicial nominees have been confirmed since the start of the legislative session in January. Seven of them have been confirmed for the start, while the two new additions to the bench have come from Middlesex County, where three seats are vacant.
Despite the increasing number of openings on the bench, there is no immediate reason to make more appointments. The Senate’s only deliberations this month are budget hearings and its Judiciary Committee is not expected to meet again until May.
Prosecutors and public defenders have expressed concerns about the effect the vacancies will have as courts resume holding trials that have been suspended during the pandemic.
Foremost in their minds is a lingering backlog of cases created by the pandemic. That backlog has thinned out a bit in recent months, from a high of 97,028 in September to 87,026 in February, the most recent month for which the judiciary released backlog data.
This is still nearly four times more than the 23,917 pending cases reported by the court in March 2020. Courts mark a case as pending if it has not been heard within a set time frame, which varies depending on of the nature of the case.
“The impact of court vacations may have been more subtle as COVID restrictions limited the number of trials that could take place in many of our courthouses,” Burlington County Attorney Scott Coffina said. president of the County Attorneys Association of New Jersey. “But now that social distancing requirements have been eased, the criminal justice system would really benefit from more judges, as more courtrooms open and the large backlog of cases resulting from the pandemic needs to be dealt with. .”
The New Jersey Public Defender’s Office agreed.
“As the courts reopen, the judicial vacation will exacerbate the problem of getting these cases to court,” said Jennifer Sellitti, spokeswoman for the office. “The fewer judges on the bench, the fewer trials we can have.”
This poses a problem for the state justice system. When the state scrapped cash bail in 2017, it also passed a speedy trial guarantee that requires defendants to be imprisoned pending trial to have their case heard within two years.
Last week, Grant told the Assembly Budget Committee that 494 criminal cases with defendants in pretrial detention are awaiting trial, including 126 where the defendants have been jailed for more than three years. Another 1,250 cases have been waiting for one to two years.
Vacancies also make it more difficult for courts to resolve domestic violence and family law cases quickly, he said.
“It’s not just a matter of statistical consideration – the courts exist to serve society and our failure to resolve issues in a timely manner poses a threat to the well-being of residents and businesses in our communities,” said Grant.