Divorce trials halted — NJ needs to fill dozens of open judge seats
Supply and demand of trial court judges is so lopsided in New Jersey, civil and matrimonial trials aren't even happening in a handful of counties.
And these trials could be halted in additional counties if steps aren't taken to address the state's judicial vacancy crisis.
Out of 433 Superior Court judgeships across the Garden State, close to 70 seats are vacant. When New Jersey 101.5 last examined the issue close to a year ago, the count of open seats was at 62.
"We are continuing down a path that prevents people from having their disputes adjudicated in a proper time frame," said Tim McGoughran, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association. "Real people are being hurt — it's not just lawyers not being able to move their cases."
Vacancy totals have averaged 60 or more nearly ever month over the past 30 months, according to the New Jersey Judiciary.
In his latest state of the judiciary address, Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner warned that several more trial judge vacancies are expected by year's end.
"People come to the court system to seek justice, and we must do better as a state to give them the attention that they deserve," Rabner said.
In February, Rabner halted civil and matrimonial trials in six counties due to a high number of vacancies across two vicinages. According to Rabner, the moratorium could be lifted in the vacancy rate is reduced, but things could move the other way and certain trials may have to be suspended in additional counties.
It's on Gov. Phil Murphy and the state Senate to move the process along. Murphy nominates names, and the Senate decides whether the nominees get the job.
McGoughran noted that the State Bar Association has been doing its own work to identify qualified nominees and get those names in front of the decision makers.
So far in 2023, New Jersey has seen 19 Superior Court judges get the thumbs up from the Senate. According to the Governor's Office, another 30 nominations have been submitted to the Senate and are awaiting movement.
"If the Senate confirms all 30 pending nominations by the end of June, the current number of 68 vacancies could almost be cut in half," said Tyler Jones, deputy press secretary.
In his address to lawyers in May, Chief Justice Rabner said the number of open seats needs to be reduced to between 25 and 30 in order to effectively serve the public.
The Legislature typically takes a summer recess after the budget is passed — the budget deadline is July 1.
Seven Superior Court nominees are part of the Senate Judiciary's June 12 schedule.
In May, Murphy nominated Michael Noriega to fill the Supreme Court's last open seat.