Judges Juggle Over 2,700 Cases Each as Families Wait for Day in Court


March 17, 2021

The federal courthouse in Newark. Federal judges in New Jersey handle caseloads that are more than three times the national average.


Phillip White, an unarmed Black man, died in police custody in New Jersey six years ago. After the Vineland, N.J., officers involved in the encounter were cleared by a grand jury and their own department, Mr. White’s family filed a $10 million wrongful-death lawsuit in federal court, accusing one officer of using excessive force.

The suit, filed in 2016, has not yet gone to trial — one of 46,609 cases that were still awaiting action last year in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, according to the latest available figures.

Short-handed and deluged by complex cases, New Jersey’s federal court is in the throes of a crisis that lawyers and judges agree threatens a fundamental tenet of the legal system: access to justice. The backlog, already at worrisome levels before the pandemic, has only gotten worse in the last year as courtrooms closed and trials were halted to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Consistently ranked among the busiest courts in the country, New Jersey’s federal bench is also extraordinarily understaffed: One-third of its judicial seats are vacant and have been for years, leaving each seated judge with a pending caseload that is well over three times the national average.

Former President Donald J. Trump fundamentally reshaped the justice system during his four years in office, filling federal appeals court vacancies at a record-setting pace and appointing scores of judges with conservative views. By January, 174 new district court judges, who handle trials, had also been seated.

But not a single judge was named in New Jersey, leaving six empty spots on the court’s 17-seat bench.

Only the Western District of Washington State, which includes Seattle and Tacoma, has a greater percentage of judicial vacancies.

The situation has gotten so serious that New Jersey has turned to judges in a neighboring state, Pennsylvania, for help managing the backlog.

That’s where the White family’s lawsuit was reassigned in May.

A spokesman for Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said that Mr. Trump’s failure to nominate candidates had created a “clear and well-documented judicial emergency.”

The last person to join the state’s court arrived in 2016, one of seven judges named by former President Barack Obama.

Still, the president did make appointments in other states with two Democratic senators, including New York, Illinois and California, leaving New Jersey’s bench mystified by the prolonged impasse. “For whatever reason he just basically ignored New Jersey,” Carl Tobias, a federal court scholar who teaches at the University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia, said of Mr. Trump.

“It’s a bad situation and it’s been bad for a long time,” Professor Tobias added. “And you compound it with a year of Covid, and it’s a worst-case scenario.”

Then tragedy came in July. The 20-year-old son of Judge Esther Salas was shot to death in the family’s New Jersey home by a misogynistic lawyer who had written about being angered by case delays, sending shock waves through the already overburdened court. Judge Salas, whose husband was also seriously injured in the shooting, only returned to work on March 2.

“When eventually we can go back to trying cases, the backlog is going to be enormous,” said Lawrence S. Lustberg, a defense and civil rights lawyer and a past president of the state’s federal bar association. “It’s good old-fashioned ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’”

While subject to pandemic-related delays, criminal cases in New Jersey are less backed up than civil ones. They account for a smaller portion of the docket and are governed by speedy trial rules that require timely action, particularly when a defendant is imprisoned.

“There hasn’t been any impingement of justice,” said Craig Carpenito, who was the state’s top federal prosector until January, when he returned to private practice. “But how long can they really survive this way?”

Noncriminal cases, including those involving civil rights, employment discrimination, Social Security appeals and coronavirus-related prison-release requests, have all been bogged down by delays, according to judges, lawyers and federal public defenders.

The pending caseload is complex. Judges in New Jersey, home to an array of pharmaceutical giants, often handle complicated drug patent cases and multidistrict litigation — suits from across the country with similar questions of fact that are consolidated and transferred to one jurisdiction, as happened with thousands of Johnson & Johnson baby powder cases.

Mr. Carpenito, who was appointed in 2018 by a former Republican attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had offices near the federal courthouse in Newark.

“These judges were working around the clock, and that’s not sustainable,” he said. “You’re walking out late at night and their cars are still there. They’re there on weekends.”

The court has been forced to rely heavily on help from so-called senior judges who at 65 are eligible to scale back their caseloads, with pay, if they have served for at least 15 years.

One senior judge in New Jersey, Anne E. Thompson, is 86. Another judge, Joseph H. Rodriguez, turned 90 in December.

Judge Rodriguez said retirement was not an option.

“I will not even think about it until we have a full complement of judges,” said Judge Rodriguez, who, during the pandemic, has been holding videoconference hearings from home five days a week. “I will not leave when it’s to their detriment, recognizing that it would shift all that work to the limited amount of judges that we have.”

An aide to Mr. Booker, who is on the Judiciary Committee, deferred questions about judicial nominations to Mr. Menendez, the state’s senior senator.

Mr. Menendez’s spokesman, Steven Sandberg, said in an email that the senator was “committed to working with the Biden administration to appoint more federal judges and fill those vacancies.”

In November, after President Biden was elected, Christopher S. Porrino, a former attorney general in New Jersey, published an op-ed titled “Now that the election is over, can we fix our federal courts?”

“Companies and their employees depend on the timely resolution of their disputes,” Mr. Porrino said in an interview. “Lives and livelihoods literally hang in the balance.”

Officials with the Biden administration have signaled that they hoped to move quickly with what are now 61 district court vacancies across the country. In a December letter, Dana Remus, the White House counsel, instructed senators to emphasize not only racial but professional diversity — “including those who are public defenders, civil rights and legal aid attorneys.”

New Jersey’s caseload has grown rapidly since 2016, when each of the district’s judges had an average of 628 pending cases. As of September, if all 17 slots were filled, those judges would be juggling 2,742 cases apiece, compared with a nationwide average of 970, according to the court’s most recent caseload report. But because only 11 seats are filled, the caseloads are actually far worse.

On Tuesday, the Judicial Conference for New Judgeships concluded that New Jersey would be understaffed even if it had its full complement of 17 judges. Based on the district’s swelling and complex caseload, it recommended that Congress create five extra positions to bring New Jersey’s allotment of judges to 22.

For now, New Jersey’s chief federal judge, Freda L. Wolfson, would be satisfied with six.

“We need these six judicial vacancies filled urgently,” she said in a statement, “not just to relieve the burden on our judges, but to dispense justice in a timely fashion.”

Cases, especially those dependent on the memories of witnesses, do not get better with age.

“Witnesses disappear. They move. They die,” said Stanley O. King, a lawyer who is representing Mr. White’s family in the Vineland case.

It was March 2015 when a police officer spotted Mr. White, 32, leaning against a fence in the small city in southern New Jersey, apparently having trouble breathing. Agitated, he resisted attempts by the police to subdue him, according to some witness accounts.

In a struggle captured on video, one officer placed Mr. White facedown on the ground where he was repeatedly punched and attacked by a police dog. The authorities have said that Mr. White reached for an officer’s holstered gun.

A medical examiner concluded that his death was linked to the drug PCP; an independent forensic pathologist hired by the family has said that Mr. White died from “respiratory and cardiac arrests during police restraint.”

In a sharply worded ruling, a Pennsylvania federal judge, Joshua D. Wolson, called an attempt to quash the lawsuit by the lawyer for the police officer, city and former police chief a “bold display of chutzpah.”

“With more than a dozen potential witnesses, inconclusive video footage and dueling experts,” Judge Wolson wrote in November, “this case is the prototype of a case that needs a trial.”

The officer being sued, the judge noted, had faced 17 prior excessive-force complaints. As the lawsuit has languished, he has been involved in 29 incidents that involved use of force, state records show. His lawyer declined to comment.

While they wait for their day in court, Mr. White’s family is unable to move on.

“Obviously we have to stay in contact with them,” Mr. King said. “And it rubs on a wound that we haven’t let heal.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-03-17 02:33:16 -0700