In an address before the Assembly Budget Committee today, Administrative Director of the Courts Glenn Grant – arguably the second-most important member of the state judiciary – warned legislators once again about the dire impacts of New Jersey’s judicial vacancy crisis.
“For the past three years, the court system has operated with an average of more than 50 vacancies,” Grant told the committee at today’s budget hearing. “A year ago, we warned of the need to reduce that number to a manageable level of between 25 and 30. We are no longer headed toward a crisis. We are in the middle of one.”
Right now, Grant said, the judiciary has 58 open judicial positions, representing around 12 percent of its total complement. That’s not including the seat held by Jill Mayer, who was confirmed to a Camden County Superior Court seat 15 months ago but has refused to take office because she wants to take a state pension and her judicial salary simultaneously, which is not allowed.
The current vacancy level is down from a previous high of 70 thanks to a flurry of late-winter State Senate confirmations, but with no Senate Judiciary Committee hearings scheduled for all of April, there hasn’t been any further progress recently. 19 nominees are still pending – one of whom is Grant’s wife, Roslyn Holmes Grant – and dozens of other seats have no nominee at all.
Grant estimated that another 22 judges are set to retire before the end of the year, meaning that the crisis could get even worse if more new judges aren’t confirmed.
In February, Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner took the extraordinary step of suspending civil and matrimonial trials entirely in six counties. Residents of Somerset, Hunterdon, Warren, Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland Counties have now been without full judicial services for nearly two months.
“The continuing judge vacancy predicament threatens our ability to fully and timely perform [our] role,” Grant said. “This crisis has required that we prioritize certain emergency and constitutional liberty matters over other cases.”
There’s also been a vacancy on the state’s highest court for nine months, and there’s still no clear timeline on when former Justice Barry Albin might finally be replaced. With Superior Court Judge Jack Sabatino elevated to the court on an interim basis, though, the urgency to fill that seat is perhaps less than on the Superior Court level.
The members of the Assembly whom Grant addressed today have little power to do anything about the issue; that’s a task that lies with Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders in the State Senate. But it’s yet another reminder that the judiciary is struggling to cope with the gaps that have been left unfilled.
“If we are to confront the challenges before us and provide the public with the level of service they are entitled to receive, we need more judges hearing cases,” Grant said.