🔵The New Jersey judge shortage is likely to get worse

🔵 Six NJ counties will suspend most civil and matrimonial trials starting on Feb. 21

🔵 The head of the NJ State Bar Association says Gov. Phil Murphy and State Senate leaders are the ones causing the crisis

It’s a serious problem that’s been dragging on for quite a while in New Jersey, and it's likely to get even worse.

A shortage of judges has caused a variety of trial delays across the Garden State for years, but starting Tuesday all civil division and matrimonial trials in Somerset, Hunterdon Warren, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties will be suspended, unless there is a life and death emergency.

According to Jeralyn Lawrence, the president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, there are currently 69 judicial vacancies throughout the state, which is more than one out of every six positions.


We are in catastrophic times

“We are in catastrophic times right now. Our judiciary is being paralyzed and crippled based on the governor and the Legislature,” she said.

In order for judges to be appointed in New Jersey, the governor has to nominate them and the State Senate must vote to approve the nominations, but that system has stalled said Lawrence.

“The problem is that the governor and the Legislature are not communicating enough, and collaborating and cooperating as to who they want on the bench.”


The average person is shut out

Lawrence said the result of this is “the courthouse doors are shut to the average person, and their legal rights and access to the courts are being trampled upon.”

She pointed out in parts of New Jersey right now if you are looking to get divorced, you cannot. If there is a custody, child support or parenting time issue you are not able to have the matter heard. Accident and medical claim cases have also been put on hold.

“The trickle down effect is far reaching,” Lawrence said.

This leaves it up to judges to prioritize cases.

“We have asked judges on a daily basis now to really just perform triage, they now have to review on a daily bases what cases are emergent,” Lawrence said.

Plenty of qualified candidates

Lawrence stressed that while there are many vacant courtrooms, finding people to fill those seats isn't an issue.

“Plenty of qualified lawyers out there that want to serve, that want to be on the bench, so that’s not the issue, and there are plenty of clients that need help.”

Lawrence pointed out in addition to the current shortage of 69 judges, there will be another 23 judicial vacancies by the time we get to June, so immediate action is necessary.

Phil Murphy via Getty Images
Phil Murphy via Getty Images

Spend more time together and do your job

“The governor has his list of candidates, the senators have their lists and they’re just not spending enough time together, they’re not talking enough,” Lawrence said.

She stressed if Murphy and Senate leaders don’t light a fire underneath themselves “and fill these vacancies, we can look at vacancies in the 70’s, 80’s, even 90’s, and now you’re talking about total crippling of our system.”

In a unusual move, New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner issued a statement earlier this month, imploring lawmakers to take action.

“We recognize that when the doors of the courthouse are closed – even partially – people entitled to their day in court suffer real harm. We therefore respectfully call on the Executive and Legislative branches to address the current vacancy crisis in Vicinages 13 and 15 as well as other parts of the state. We are prepared to assist in any way that would be helpful,” Rabner said in his statement.

David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at david.matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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