Judicial vacancies in the New Jersey courts have entered the news, sparking concerns for many people with pending matters before the court. Approximately 15% of all Superior Court judgeships in the state remain vacant. As a result, people may face significant hardships when their divorce, child custody and other family matters are delayed unnecessarily as they and their family law attorneys await their hearings.
Of course, judicial vacancies can have a serious impact on all issues handled in the courts. Criminal defendants may wait in jails for their cases to come to trial, with pretrial detention extended even longer as a result of the lack of judges to oversee their cases. Even business, real estate and financial cases can be seriously affected by delay, especially when people are facing a financial crisis due to the lengthy waiting time before their matters are handled.
For people dealing with a New Jersey divorce and other family legal matters, the impact of judicial vacancies can be very personal. Divorce lawyers have repeatedly spoken out about how their clients’ lives are negatively affected by lengthy waits to have their matters heard, especially when children are involved or when parents are engaged in high-conflict legal battles. Generally, people who are waiting for a trial before a New Jersey family court judge are those facing the most high-conflict divorces. These are also the cases where family lawyers have seen children have the most serious effects from their parents’ divorces and associated struggles over child custody, parental alienation and other serious issues.
While people in amicable divorces may work with their divorce attorneys to negotiate a settlement outside of court with only limited input is needed from a judge, those who are in the most dire and concerning situations may face the longest delays. Family law attorneys report that people in 10 New Jersey counties may not schedule divorce trials because of the severity of the judicial vacancy problem, while in four other counties, delays may persist for up to six months. One county has no judge assigned to handle divorce cases at all.
Judicial vacancies can pose a real problem for many families going through highly contested divorces. Children may face long-term psychological harm as a result of the ongoing conflicts of their parents, particularly if they continue to share a home. Situations involving domestic violence or signs of abuse may progress to become more dangerous. When false allegations are made, the effects are also significant. While permanent restraining order hearings are supposed to take place within 10 days of a temporary order being issued, these hearings may be delayed for many months. As a result, a parent who is falsely accused may be separated from their child for lengthy periods without recourse. The backlog of domestic violence cases has increased 10 times.
Even when the consequences appear to be solely financial, they can still be significant, especially for the majority of people dealing with divorce who have limited disposable incomes. Certain types of retirement funds need to be divided with official orders that can only be obtained from the court. As a result, people going through gray divorces may face a financial crisis so long as they cannot complete the division. People who are waiting to refinance or sell their homes along with a divorce settlement that removes one party from the mortgage may face changing interest rates or other problems when the official divorce decrees are postponed.
Divorce attorneys are hearing from clients on a daily basis whose lives are catastrophically impacted as a result of the delays in the system. Divorce is already a challenging time for families, economically, emotionally and logistically, and the added delays that result from the judicial vacancy crisis only exacerbate these existing problems. Rather than an issue that only affects the court system or the lawyers that engage with it, judicial vacancies have a real effect on a wide swath of the New Jersey population.
Stuart Rabner, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, has noted that the vacancy situation has made lives difficult for family lawyers and clients across the state. The state’s highest court is suffering from vacancies, with only four justices in place. Our Supreme Court has a historic three-justice vacancy. Individual and family lives may be placed on hold, including job opportunities, moves and financial changes, as people wait for a judge to hear their case. The judiciary in New Jersey faces the highest number of vacancies that it has seen throughout its history.
The judges who are hearing cases are also facing an additional burden as a result, as they and their staff are overburdened by an excessive number of cases due to the lack of judges to hear the cases coming before the court. While virtual hearings had improved access to justice since the beginning of the pandemic, with 5.5 million people appearing in over 365,000 virtual hearings, even this number is significantly lower than the cases that could have been addressed virtually with a full slate of judges across the state.
Lawyers have been urging the state to confirm more judges, with all parties in state government coordinating to move nominations forward. Eleven new Superior Court judges have recently been confirmed, but 17 more judges are expected to leave due to mandatory retirement before the end of 2022. With greater numbers of qualified judicial candidates being nominated and confirmed, the judicial vacancy crisis could be addressed more expeditiously.
Chief Justice Rabner has also urged lawmakers to speed up the process of approving new judges, with state residents facing waiting time to schedule a new trial. In addition to the crisis faced by families waiting for hearings on divorce and custody matters, people with personal injury cases may wait three to four years for a trial, during a time when their damages may continue to accelerate and they may face medical and financial hardship as a result of the delay.
In March 2022, Chief Justice Rabner said that 82,000 cases of all types were backlogged across the state, a number that has risen dramatically in the past two years. In March 2020, there were nearly 24,000 backlogged cases. While criminal, family and other cases have been prioritized, the high level of vacancies means that even prioritization has not ameliorated the effect on individual families. At the same time, the regular civil court system dealing with products liability, personal injury, civil rights and other matters has become even more backlogged.
There may be ways to work with your family lawyer to mitigate the system-wide effects of the judicial vacancies, although your lawyer may advise you as to the best options for your unique situation. In divorce cases where a trial is not necessary, you may be able to move forward when you and your estranged spouse can negotiate a mutually acceptable marital settlement agreement and present it to a judge for approval. Proceeding with negotiations rather than litigation has always been a way for divorcing families to save time, and this can be particularly helpful during the judicial vacancy crisis.
If you have decided to end your marriage, contact the experienced New Jersey divorce lawyers at Lawrence Law by calling 908-645-1000 or using our secure online form for a consultation at our Red Bank or Watchung offices.