Justice denied: Because Murphy and lawmakers can’t staff our courts | Editorial

Published: May. 22, 2022

New Jersey’s courts are confronting an unprecedented crisis: They’ve been left short-handed by a historic number of judicial vacancies.

This understaffing only compounds the backlog worsened by the pandemic, when courtrooms closed and trials were postponed, leaving people without access to justice – a core tenet of our democracy, and a basic human right.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner laid out some horrifying hard evidence of the problem and the human cost in his “State of the Judiciary” speech before the Bar Association in Atlantic City on Friday.

Start with the nearly 6,800 people languishing in our jails, despite a law that essentially requires a trial within two years. Many haven’t hit the two-year mark yet, and some could be found not guilty after spending that entire time behind bars. Imagine losing years of your life to bureaucracy.

This also affects thousands more on the outside, Rabner said, who can’t get a divorce, see their kids or pay their medical bills because their lives are put on hold while awaiting a hearing.

About 17 percent of our trial court positions are vacant, he said. Our courts are averaging 50 or more vacancies each month, when it should be no higher than 25 or 30 to serve the public adequately. But the governor and the Legislature remain at an impasse, so here we are.

The 23 pending nominations by Gov. Murphy will not ease this bottleneck – that’s roughly how many judicial retirements are coming up, so it’s a wash. “The problem is simple to grasp,” Rabner said. “We need more judges to provide the level of service the public is entitled to receive. And we need help from the other branches to fix that problem.”

Consider how this mess affects someone gravely injured in a car crash, workplace accident or act of medical malpractice, whose case is complex: Families must face enormous medical bills, even the loss of their homes, with no idea if their loved one will get any restitution. “That plaintiff can’t expect to go to trial for 3 to 4 years from the date the case is filed,” Rabner said.

Meanwhile, trials on civil rights matters, whistleblower cases, or lawsuits over defective products or environmental pollution have been “postponed indefinitely,” the chief justice said. And even though cases of domestic violence are being prioritized in family court, they’re also seeing unjust delays.

When there’s a serious allegation of domestic violence, it’s common for a court to impose a temporary restraining order, Rabner explained. A final hearing on that order is supposed to occur within 10 days, but that doesn’t always happen; because of the current shortage of judges, it can take up to several months to conduct the hearing.

“That means a parent is sometimes displaced from their home and cannot see their child for months before they have a chance to testify before a judge,” he said. “That should not happen in a system of justice.”

Right. And good luck getting a divorce right now. “In one vicinage, no divorce trials at all are being scheduled, because there are not enough judges,” the chief justice described. Another vicinage estimates that at the current rate, it will take five years from the date of filing to get to trial. People’s lives “are on indefinite hold.”

Even our state Supreme Court, which grapples with some of New Jersey’s most challenging issues, is facing historic vacancies. Soon it could have only four out of the seven justices the state constitution calls for.

“Ask any students of the Constitutional Convention of 1947, and they will tell you that is not what the framers of the modern constitution envisioned,” Rabner said. “Nowhere in the debates about the judicial branch did they contemplate a vacancy level of more than 40 percent on the state’s highest court.”

Some of this is due to the mischief of senatorial courtesy, an antiquated tradition that allows a single senator to block the appointment of anyone from his or her own county, denying the nominee both a hearing and a vote. But that’s been a nuisance for decades. Given that this is the most extraordinarily understaffed judiciary in New Jersey’s history, the buck also stops at the Murphy administration. This is a knot only the governor can untie.

Time for both branches of government to come together and address this judicial emergency, as Rabner and other justices have been demanding for the past two years. As the legal maxim goes, justice delayed is justice denied.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-05-24 03:16:40 -0700