NJ residents ‘should be outraged’ over judicial vacancies, group says
New Jersey is running on a historic number of judge vacancies on the Supreme Court and Superior Court levels, and there's no indication that will change anytime soon.
In the meantime, advocates and statistics suggest, access to justice is being compromised on a daily basis.
"The citizens of the state should really be outraged," said Jeralyn Lawrence, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association. "Our crown jewel, our highest level of court in our state, is 43% vacant. In our Superior Court, our trial court, we have 62 judicial vacancies."
Ushered out by a mandatory retirement based on age, Barry Albin left behind a third open seat on the New Jersey Supreme Court in early July. The bench typically features the expertise of seven justices.
One of the seats is being temporarily filled by an appellate judge, as five justices are needed for a quorum. Gov. Phil Murphy last made a nomination to the Supreme Court in March 2021 — confirmation of Rachel Wainer Apter, director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, hangs in the balance because Republican state Sen. Holly Schepisi hasn't signed off on the move (Wainer Apter lives in Bergen County, Schepisi's district).
"The Senate doesn't even have anyone to act on with regard to filling three vacancies," Lawrence said.
The Legislature is on summer recess, but senators have hinted that they plan to convene during break to work through nominations. Nominations on both the Supreme Court and Superior Court levels are made by Murphy.
"You have a Democrat as a governor and a democratic legislature — why there's such a backlog when that's the case is the unknown here," Lawrence said. "We understand it takes time, and we understand that we want the best and brightest and we want them to be vetted. But this is not a new problem."
When contacted by New Jersey 101.5, Murphy's office did not comment on Supreme Court nominations, but it noted that Murphy has nominated 35 Superior Court judges in 2022 alone — 25 have been confirmed and 10 await confirmation.
"He will continue to appoint qualified and capable individuals to the judiciary and work with the Senate through the advice and consent process," Murphy's office said.
62 vacant Superior Court seats
Speaking at the New Jersey State Bar Association Convention in May, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner himself commented on the backlog of people waiting for their day in court because of the growing number of judicial vacancies in the Superior Court.
In one vicinage, he mentioned, no divorce trials were being scheduled because there weren't enough judges. Another was projecting that it would take five years from the date of filing to get to trial, when the vacant-seat count was at 75.
"The problem is simple to grasp," he said. "We need more judges to provide the level of service the public is entitled to receive. And we need help from the other branches to fix that problem."
Meanwhile, thousands of criminal defendants are languishing in jail because there aren't enough judges to hear their cases.
According to the Bar Association, the backlog of domestic violence cases has increased tenfold since early 2020. The number of landlord-tenant cases has quadrupled over that time.
"Access to court and access to justice has been completely compromised by the enormous and catastrophic levels of vacancies that we're seeing at the court," Lawrence said.