Judge vacancies in New Jersey are causing thousands of people to put their lives on hold | Opinion

Published: Jun. 09, 2022

By Jeralyn L. Lawrence

The president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, who is also a divorce and family law attorney, cites an ongoing crisis brought on my judicial vacancies. About 6,800 defendants are sitting in county jails awaiting trial statewide and many others are waiting for a divorce or other family matter to be resolved.

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“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.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-06-10 02:53:22 -0700