New Jersey faces a serious shortage of trial court judges, and the growing judicial vacancy rate will soon impact how long it takes for cases to be decided. In Essex County, the shortage prompted Assignment Judge Patricia Costello to suspend complex civil litigation and all matrimonial trials for at least four months.
Acting Administrative Director of the Courts Glenn Grant recently testified before the Assembly Budget Committee that there have been between 50 to 55 vacancies over the past year. Moreover, upcoming retirements are expected to raise the number to at least 60 by September.
“Do you have enough judges?” asked Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester. “No, to be quite candid,” Grant replied.
Unlike other states, New Jersey public law requires judges to be appointed and confirmed. As a result, judicial appointments are often caught up in partisan politics. In addition, the custom between governors and the New Jersey State Bar Association requires a screening process conducted by lawyers. Accordingly, judicial appointments are often caught up in non-partisan NJSBA politics as well.
To further compound the problem, re-nominations are also affected by the political process. State judges come up for tenure after holding their positions for seven years. To gain tenure, they must be re-nominated by the governor and approved by the state Senate.
Gov. Chris Christie recently threatened to block the re-nominations of several New Jersey judges. He claimed that the reappointment denials were part of his efforts to reign in a judiciary that he characterizes as too “activist.” To the ears of most Democrats, that sounds like “too Liberal.”
The good news is that last week, the Governor and lawmakers seem to have taken steps to move the process forward. Christie re-nominated Superior Court Judge Verna G. Leath, and announced plans to reappoint 14 other judges. He also nominated seven attorneys to the Superior Court, including Joe Oxley, a partner at Scarinci Hollenbeck. All of the nominees must pass scrutiny by the Senate Judiciary Committee and gain full Senate approval.
In addition to the New Jersey trial court vacancies, two positions on the state’s highest court remain unfilled. The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected one of the governor’s nominees, First Assistant Attorney General Phillip Kwon. The confirmation hearing of Christie’s second nominee, Chatham borough Mayor Bruce Harris, has been scheduled for May 31.
Ahead of the hearing, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are already voicing their opinions. Democrats have raised questions about Harris’ experience. “I wouldn’t bet on him. He’s got no courtroom experience,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the committee chair. “It’s going to be difficult for people to vote for a man who doesn’t have a lot of courtroom experience.”
Like Kwon, it appears Harris may be in for a bumpy ride. If he does not have the votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee, it will be interesting to see whether the Governor withdraws his name or forces a no vote like Kwon’s.