After she was tapped for a seat on the state’s highest court in March 2021, Rachel Wainer Apter’s nomination is poised to advance following multiple reports of an end to a stalemate that would actually fill two of the three vacancies on the bench. But the open seats on the New Jersey Supreme Court are just the tip of the iceberg of a crisis in the courts when it comes to a lack of judges.
As of Sept. 5, the state had 64 judicial openings, according to the Judiciary.
New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner took issue with the vacancies during his State of the Judiciary remarks, delivered May 20 at the New Jersey State Bar Association Convention in Atlantic City. While he acknowledged the unexpected impact of COVID-19 and the delays the pandemic has fostered in the judiciary system, he lamented the open seats.
“To address that backlog and give people their day in court requires more than just scheduling trial dates,” he said. “We need judges who can credibly say to the parties, ‘Have your case ready next Monday. We’ll start picking a jury then.’ In too many areas today, we are simply unable to do that because of the sustained and growing number of judicial vacancies in the Superior Court.”
At the time, Rabner said there were 75 open seats on the trial court bench, the highest in the State Judiciary’s history.
While some have been filled since, at the time the chief justice also pointed out that upwards of 20 Superior Court judges were set to retire by year’s end. “In addition, for the past two-and-a-half years, we have averaged 50 or more vacancies each month,” he added. “That number should be no higher than 25 or 30 for the Judiciary to be able to best serve the public.”
The last time the Senate Judiciary committee met in Trenton was Aug. 8; six potential judges were interviewed. As of the Sept. 7 legislative calendar, the panel is next scheduled to meet Oct. 13.
In an op-ed for The Star Ledger, New Jersey State Bar Association President Jeralyn Lawrence also called attention to the vacancies, and in particular to their effects on the type of law she practices, divorce and family law. Lawrence is also managing member and founder of Watchung-based Lawrence Law.
“It is imperative that the Governor’s Office and the Legislature put the judicial crisis at the center of their attention,” she wrote over the summer. “There is no value in finger-pointing between the branches of government. Now is the time to cast blame aside and fix this problem, because the residents of our state deserve a court system with adequate resources to address their matters efficiently, effectively and without undue delay.”
In his remarks to the NJSBA, Rabner also called for collaboration to get the business of the courts back on track.
“The problem is simple to grasp. We need more judges to provide the level of service the public is entitled to receive,” he said. “And we need help from the other branches to fix that problem. The Judiciary is ready and willing to assist in any way that might be helpful.”
According to multiple reports, Gov. Phil Murphy will nominate Superior Court Judge Douglas Fasciale to the state Supreme Court to replace Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina, who retired in February. Fasciale was appointed as a temporary justice by Rabner, effective Sept. 1. That just leaves the seat left vacant by Justice Barry Albin’s July retirement, after which he joined law firm Lowenstein Sandler as partner in the litigation department and chair of the appellate practice group. But an open seat on the state’s highest court is a pretty big “just.”