The ongoing shortage of judges that led to the suspension of civil and divorce trials in six counties could cause similar stoppages elsewhere unless those vacancies are filled soon, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Stuart Rabner warned.
Of the 433 trial court judgeships in New Jersey, there are currently 64 vacancies with 20 more expected by the end of the year – either voluntarily or because they will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70. Unless the state reduces the number of empty seats to between 25 and 30, Rabner said the judicial vacancy crisis will result in more trial suspensions and further delay to existing criminal and civil proceedings.
“People come to the court system to seek justice, and we must do better as a state to give them the attention that they deserve. Make no mistake about it, this problem will not simply go away,” Rabner said during his state of the judiciary address at the New Jersey Bar Association’s annual meeting and convention May 19 in Atlantic City.
He told attendees the best way to measure the impact of vacancies is by how long a seat has remained unfilled. If left open for a few months, the affect is “relatively modest,” he said, but if a judgeship remains vacant for several years it can cause delays in more than 1,000 cases.
In New Jersey, vacancy totals throughout the judiciary have averaged 60 or more nearly every month for the last two-and-a-half years.
The situation prompted Rabner to take an unprecedented step in February – halting civil and divorce trials in Vicinage 13 (Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren counties) and Vicinage 15 (Salem, Cumberland and Gloucester counties), saying judges were needed for juvenile, criminal and domestic violence cases.
Although the moratorium in those jurisdictions could be lifted if more judges are sent to the bench there, Raber said, “We may soon be left with no choice other than to halt civil and matrimonial trials in other counties in our state, something we very much hope to avoid.”
Rabner, along with Administrative Director of the Courts Glenn Grant, has repeatedly warned of the shortage and urged lawmakers to fill those vacancies.
During his speech, Rabner also highlighted several judiciary initiatives, including: