Sending a strong message to Gov. Phil Murphy and state senators, the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court suspended civil and matrimonial trials in six New Jersey counties because of the high number of judicial vacancies.
Stuart Rabner, the chief justice, said that courts in Cumberland, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Salem, Somerset, and Warren counties, will stop holding trials on February 21, with exceptions “for very limited circumstances.”
“Without additional relief, we may well face the same situation in other vicinages in the near future,” Rabner said.
The move puts pressure on Murphy and state senators in the affected counties — all in two small vicinages — to speed up the process of vetting, nominating, and confirming new judges, especially in an election year where three of the counties involve potentially competitive Senate races.
“We recognize that when the doors of the courthouse are closed – even partially – people entitled to their day in court suffer real harm,” stated Rabner. “We therefore respectfully call on the executive and legislative branches to address the current vacancy crisis.
Rabner said there are 69 trial court vacancies statewide right now, “more than one out of every six positions statewide.”
“That imposes heightened responsibilities on sitting judges who handle thousands of proceedings and motions each month,” He said.
According to Rabner, state court vacancies have averaged more than 50.
“That situation, along with the effects of the COVID crisis, has contributed to delays in handling individual cases and substantial increases in backlog,” the chief justice said in a statement.
Matters where an individual’s liberty is at stake, including criminal and juvenile delinquency matters, and cases that involve potential emergencies, like domestic violence, receive priority attention from the state courts.
Rabner said the shutdown of trials would continue indefinitely.
“We are prepared to assist in any way that would be helpful,” said Rabner. “We look forward to a resumption of all proceedings in both vicinages as soon as possible.”
A spokesperson for Murphy, Natalie Hamilton, aid the governor has “has remained committed to ensuring vacancies in New Jersey’s courts are filled by highly qualified individuals who demonstrate unwavering integrity and dedication to service, while reflecting the diversity of the New Jerseyans that they are sworn to serve.”
“Since he took office in 2018, 101 judges have been nominated and confirmed, including 45 in the 2022 calendar year,” Hamilton said. “Recognizing the extraordinary challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, the Governor is eager to see the remaining 17 pending Superior Court nominations he put forth receive Senate confirmation and will continue to nominate new, highly qualified candidates this year.”