By Jeralyn L. Lawrence
“Crisis,” “staggering,” “unprecedented,” the list of words describing the issue of judicial vacancies in New Jersey goes on. The hyperbole is well-earned. We live in a state where 15% of its Superior Court judgeships – 68 out of 463 seats – remain vacant.
I can’t speak to the struggles of 6,800 defendants sitting in county jails awaiting trial statewide, whose cases are stalled due in part to the pandemic and a lack of judges. I can’t illuminate the burnout that judges and their staff are suffering from handling an overflow of cases. As a divorce and family law attorney of 25 years, what I can convey is that the absence of judges in family court is beyond a crisis — it is catastrophic and it is causing devastation to children and families.
The delays in justice are taking both a human and financial toll on litigants. Many find themselves in the middle of high-conflict divorces with absolutely no access to the court for trials in divorce matters. To my knowledge, out of 21 counties in New Jersey, lawyers can’t even schedule divorce trials in nine. In four other counties, trials are stalled for up to six months. One county has no judge handling divorce cases.
The stories from my family law colleagues are bewildering. One represents a mother of four with stage-4 cancer, who is worried she might die before her divorce is processed. Another said that while waiting for a motion hearing, the marital home grew so toxic and tumultuous — with the parents stuck in a marriage while living together — that their kids became suicidal.
Some people who can’t get final judgments of divorce have difficulty refinancing their homes, costing them exorbitant money in additional interest. Funds are also tied up among those who can’t divide up their retirement assets.
New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner acknowledged the crisis during a recent speech at New Jersey State Bar Association’s (NJSBA) Annual Meeting and Convention. Not even the state Supreme Court is immune the vacancy phenomenon. The state’s top court is currently operating with only five justices, and will lose another to retirement in July. For the many litigants trudging through a legal system hampered by the lack of judges, “their lives remain on hold,” Rabner said.
“Superior Court judges are working tirelessly across the system to address the large number of pending matters before them,” Rabner said. “The problem is simple to grasp: we need more judges to provide the level of service the public is entitled to receive.”
Rabner commended the court system’s pivot from an in-person operation to a virtual one almost overnight at the onset of the pandemic. Since March 2020, state courts have conducted roughly 365,000 virtual proceedings that involved more than 5.5 million individuals. Imagine the thousands of people and businesses who would have their day in court if the state-operated with a full complement of judges, including untold numbers of children and families.
The NJSBA applauds the state Senate for recently confirming a slate of 11 new Superior Court judges. The appointments, however, barely scratch the surface of the vacancy crisis, with an additional 17 judges expected to leave the bench through retirements by the end of 2022.
The NJSBA is proud to play an integral role in the review of judicial candidates through the Hughes Compact. We have worked vigilantly to review all candidates presented, and have ramped up those efforts to assist in the selection and nomination process. We urge the governor to continue to nominate and the Senate to provide its thoughtful advice and consent on as many qualified judicial candidates as possible.
It is imperative that the Governor’s Office and the Legislature put the judicial crisis at the center of their attention. There is no value in finger-pointing between the branches of government. Now is the time to cast blame aside and fix this problem, because the residents of our state deserve a court system with adequate resources to address their matters efficiently, effectively and without undue delay.
Jeralyn L. Lawrence is the president of the New Jersey State Bar Association. She is the managing member and founder of Lawrence Law, a divorce and family law practice in Watchung.
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