Legal logjam

A shortage of judges and a 'judicial emergency' in the Garden State

Daniel J. Munoz//August 12, 2019//

Legal logjam

A shortage of judges and a 'judicial emergency' in the Garden State

Daniel J. Munoz//August 12, 2019//

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At first glance, the class action lawsuit that a New Jersey resident filed against Red Robin International in November seemed relatively mundane.

The fast food chain, according to plaintiff John Geraci, sent him incessant and unwanted telemarketing text messages. Geraci claimed that violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, and brought his allegations to court in the District of New Jersey.

But with the immense backlog of cases, numbering in the thousands due to the shortage of federal judges for the state, Red Robin moved to have the case transferred to the federal court district to Colorado where their headquarters are located.

Red Robin argued that the Colorado court would have a much faster turnaround between filing and an actual trial than New Jersey, citing vacancies in six of the 17 federal judges, which the court agreed was a “judicial emergency.”

New Jersey is granted 17 federal judges to handle cases, but the state only has 11 of those judges. Two of the vacancies are at the federal court in Newark, two in Trenton and the remaining two in Camden.

Former United States District Court for the District of New Jersey Chief Justice Jose Linares.

Former Chief Justice Jose Linares chalks the vacancies off to politics. Next year is the 2020 presidential election with the primaries well underway, where U.S. Sen. Cory Booker is eyeing the Democratic nomination for president to unseat Donald Trump.

His fellow New Jersey Democrat, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, narrowly kept his seat last year after a nasty fight with Republican Bob Hugin.

Typically, the two would send their picks for hopeful nominations to the White House, while the administration will put out its own list of picks. Then would come negotiations and once the list is finalized, the picks would require the consent of the U.S. Senate.

“With election year coming up [and] politics being what they are, I’m not sure what the level of cooperation between the White House is, going both ways,” Linares told NJBIZ.

Still, with the six vacancies, “there’s plenty of room” for both sides to be largely satisfied with the appointments and “get what they want,” New Jersey Civil Justice Institute President Alida Kass told NJBIZ.

“The White House gets some picks, you get some picks and there is a package that is agreed upon,” Kass added.

Kass said that the case of Red Robin highlights the myriad of ways the judge-shortage could complicate legal cases moving for the state and involving businesses that have set up shop in New Jersey.

The backlog has been felt particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, which calls states like New Jersey their home, Linares said.

“New Jersey and Delaware together handle 90 percent of pharma cases, where there is litigation between generic drug manufacturers and brand manufacturers over new generics going to the market,” Linares said. “If these patent cases get delayed, the effects on the pharma industry, is a monster problem.”

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.

The backlog also extends to the energy sector, according to a letter sent to Booker and Menendez from David Cook, chair of the Senate Judicial Communications Committee at the Association of the Federal Bar of New Jersey.

“If the White House does not put forth nominations soon, New Jersey’s judicial emergency will become drastically worse,” Cook’s letter reads.

The number of judges in the state has been gradually whittled down from 17 to 11 since 2015 as they retired or took on a reduced caseload.

U.S. Judge Faith Hochberg retired in 2015, after which U.S. Judge William Martini took on a senior role, meaning he could volunteer for the role part-time and choose his cases.

Meanwhile, the number of cases moving through New Jersey’s federal court system have increased tremendously over the past five years.

This past March, there were 32,982 pending cases, compared to 8,867 pending cases in March 2014. In March 2014, 9,561 cases were filed, compared to 25,855 in March 2019. There were 9,249 terminations in March 2014 compared to 14,205 terminations in March 2019.

Under the Speedy Trial Act, criminal cases are moved to the front of the line, followed by cases where attorneys successfully push through an emergency application for the case to be heard much sooner than they would otherwise be heard.

Linares said that as a result, much more in-depth and complicated cases are consistently moved to the backburner.

In addition to pharmaceuticals, corporations and private individuals trying to hash out bankruptcy settlements could be kept in legal limbo for years on end.

“People are waiting for their cases to be decided, and their politicians can’t come to an agreement on how these vacancies should be filled, and that’s a shame,” Linares said.

In the short term, U.S. Chief Judge Freda Wolfson has been trying to attract help from judges outside of the state to help carry the case load.

In the meantime, according to Linares, the senior judges are also helping to pick up the slack, even if at a considerably reduced caseload. Even then, those judges also retire or die, Linares said.

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.

The offices of Booker and Menendez could not be reached for comment, while a spokesperson for the White House would not provide comment.

The 116th Congress has so far approved 40 federal judges. The only one approved for New Jersey was Paul Matey in March to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Matey previously served as deputy chief counsel and senior counsel under former-Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican.

Menendez, in a March floor speech, rallied against Trump’s nomination of Matey.

“So long as the President keeps packing our courts with corporate-friendly, federalist society judges, the Republican majority is willing to destroy a process Sen. Orrin Hatch called ‘the last remaining check on the president’s judicial appointment power’,” Menendez said.