The total number of judicial vacancies across the state fluctuates, as judges retire and new ones are appointed. In fact that vacancy figure was running in the low 20s and 30s under the past several governors. But for much of Christie’s first term, it has been running in the high 40s, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.
But while vicinages across the state are missing judges, the biggest hole, far and away, remains in Essex County, the state’s busiest courthouse. There are so few judges to hear cases that Essex County Assignment Judge Patricia Costello put a temporary halt on matrimonial trials and certain complex civil trials in 2011. The moratorium was lifted after some judges were recalled from retirement and eight others were brought in from other vicinages, but the problem largely remains.
In fact, the governor has hardly nominated any judges from Essex County. Of his 33 judicial appointments this year, only two were from Essex County, and both names went through. In fact since taking office in June 2010, the governor has nominated 100 judges, and only seven have been from Essex County -- and all but one of those seven nominations went through. The governor’s office declined to comment on its judicial appointments.
To be sure, there’s been political squabbling between the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican governor for several years now, over more than just judicial appointments. Scores of other gubernatorial appointments, from seemingly inconsequential nominations like those to the New Jersey Advisory Commission on the Status of Women or the New Jersey Historic Trust to more weighty positions, like the Port Authority, have been blocked.
In Essex County, only five of the 15 people the governor nominated this year to various non-judicial positions have gone through. In the prior three years of his term, about half of his Essex County nominees have made it out of the Senate, according to records provided by the Office of Legislative Services.
The result is a backlog of cases. On the criminal side, there were 900 pending post-indictment cases as of June 2010. In March 2013, that figure had risen to 1,213, making Essex the worst county in the state in terms of a case backlog. Since then, resources have been deployed and that number has dipped back to 1,130, though that figure is still high. And there’s a fear that the backlog will grow again if new judges aren’t named, the judges on loan are called back to their home counties, and the judges who have been called back from retirement are no longer funded, Quinn said.
The backlog is even worse on the civil and family side. Because defendants on the criminal side are legally guaranteed a speedy trial, some civil judges have been moved to the criminal division to ensure that those cases are kept moving.
“You don’t want a criminal going free because you didn’t try cases fast enough,” Quinn said.
And so civil cases that will take a day or two are moving forward but those that will take several weeks, like a large medical malpractice case, are not being heard, Quinn said. On the family side, there are some rules about hearing child abuse and domestic violence cases expeditiously, but matrimonial cases are being put on the back burner. People trying to get divorced are being forced to live together for a lot longer than they’d like because no one is hearing their cases, Quinn said.
In June 2010, there was a backlog of 90 cases in family court. As of August -- the most recent data available -- that figure had risen to 281.
“I have no doubt that the lack of consistent family judges has caused the number of backlogged cases to rise,” Quinn said.