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Is Political Squabble Behind Essex County's Double-Digit Judicial Vacancies?

To keep the civil docket moving, Essex County Assignment Judge Dennis Carey essentially set up blue-ribbon panels filled with well-known civil litigators, and about a week before the trial, they are assigned a group of cases slated to go to trial if they don’t settle. This group evaluates the cases and works with the parties involved and has been able to produce a significant number of settlements on cases that would otherwise have gone to trial, said Quinn.

Robert Scrivo, a partner at McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter in Morristown and the Essex County Bar Association’s most recent past president, said because criminal defendants have a right to a speedy trial and cases involving child services and domestic violence have timetables established by statute, the cases that don’t have statutory requirements are being pushed back, again and again.

“If you spoke to the chairman of our family division in the Essex County Bar Association, she could probably give a lot of examples of people who are ready, willing, and able to have witnesses lined up, economists lined up, everyone ready to go, but they can’t get heard because there aren’t enough judges to hear those cases,” Scrivo said.

Likewise, there are many examples of civil cases where the plaintiffs and defendants were ready to go, the witnesses were ready, and there was no chance of a settlement, but there was no judge available to hear their case, he said.

“It’s been bad but there hasn’t been a complete stoppage, and that’s because the Chief Justice designated judges from other counties to sit in Essex County over the past few years, because there have been no appointments. So we have judges from Bergen, Monmouth, Morris, Passaic, and several other counties assigned here to alleviate the backlog,” said Scrivo, who, when he was county bar president, wrote to New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, requesting that he designate additional judges to Essex on a temporary basis. Rabner consented and transferred a handful of judges last year.

Scrivo says he doesn’t know exactly where the fault lies. At one time, there was talk that Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) was blocking appointments because he was unhappy with the nomination of Christopher Cerf to the position of education commissioner, he said. Cerf lived primarily in Montclair at the time, which is in Rice’s district. Rice had some differences with Cerf’s background and education philosophy. But Cerf subsequently moved to Somerset County, which opened the way to his appointment as commissioner.

“The whole issue about who’s getting appointed and how they get appointed has just been one big battle under this particular governor,” said Senator-elect Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex), who was chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee before winning the Senate seat vacated by gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono.

A former president of the Middlesex County Bar Association, Barnes says members of the bar have been particularly surprised about how partisan Christie has been in his appointments to the high court. He points to the governor’s failure to reappoint Supreme Court Justice John E. Wallace, a Democrat, back in May of 2010, and replacing him with Anne M. Patterson, a Morris County lawyer and a Republican. Christie has said he wants to remake the Court, getting rid of activist -- or liberal -- judges.

Before that, New Jersey’s governors traditionally reappointed sitting justices, and observed the convention of maintaining an equal balance of Democrats and Republicans on the high court. “The tradition led to the sterling reputation, nationally, of New Jersey’s Supreme Court.

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