April 28, 2022
For Immediate Release
Contact: Thomas F. Nobile
New Jersey State Bar Association President Domenick Carmagnola wrote an op-ed published by The Record on April 21 on the critical need to fill judicial vacancies and the crisis facing the public as a result.
Read the op-ed below.
Opinion: Lack of state judges has reached crisis level
The term ‘unprecedented’ has weight and heft in the legal world. It is used in circumstances where meaningful change has occurred, and what is happening in New Jersey’s Judiciary is truly unprecedented.
While the world emerges from a pandemic, our legal system suffers through an epidemic of gridlock, burnout and injustice caused by the growing number of judicial vacancies. Every day that passes without addressing the problem bangs deeper the dent in the public’s trust that its justice system works fairly and efficiently for them.
There are currently 73 Superior Court vacancies statewide out of 463 judge seats. That number will grow to an historic high of 75 by the beginning of May. An additional 22 judges are expected to leave the bench by the end of 2022. And to make matters worse, the state Supreme Court – currently operating with only six justices – will lose another to retirement in July.
The vacancy rates plague each vicinage in the state, from the smallest to those that process the most cases. Essex County, the county with the state’s largest caseload, is missing roughly 20% of its judges — Atlantic County is operating without a quarter of its judges, and Mercer County is down almost a third.
Simply put, a justice system this devoid of judges is unsustainable.
The problem is compounded by a rising backlog in court cases due primarily to the pandemic. While the Administrative Office of the Courts made great strides in keeping the courthouse doors open since 2020 through virtual hearings and events, certain court matters were inevitably put on hold.
Pending cases in landlord-tenant matters have jumped more than four times, from 11,316 in February 2020 to 46,369 in February 2022, the AOC says. Pending domestic violence cases have jumped 86.2%, from 1,869 in February 2020 to 3,480 in February 2022. And post-indictment pending criminal cases are almost 50% higher than before the pandemic.
It’s a two-pronged crisis—cases continue to pile up, yet there is a dearth of judges to adjudicate them.
The ripple effect is profound. Judges and their staff risk burnout from shouldering the overflow of cases. The average citizen with a legitimate legal gripe may turn away from the justice system. And, more significantly, those criminal defendants detained pre-trial, will continue to languish in jail.
Unfortunately, there’s no single reason for the vacancies. What we have is perfect storm of causes: the pandemic taking focus off judicial nominations, the governor’s office not nominating people who will get approval from their home county senator, and senators unable to form a consensus on nominees. Couple that with the societal effects of judges opting for early retirement, and you have a full-blown crisis.
The New Jersey State Bar Association 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.
But we need the Governor’s Office and the Legislature to put the judicial crisis at the center of their attention. It is their duty to ensure that the residents of our state have a court system with adequate resources to address their matters efficiently, effectively and without undue delay.
We urge the governor to nominate and the Senate to provide its thoughtful advice and consent on as many qualified judicial candidates as possible.
Domenick Carmagnola is the president of the New Jersey State Bar Association. He is a founding partner at Carmagnola and Ritardi, LLC in Morristown.