The latest annual report issued by the New Jersey judiciary, for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021, shows both the resilience of the courts during the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing backlog of cases.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, in a letter accompanying the report, shared stories of dedication and ingenuity employed by the people who make up New Jersey’s judiciary.
“For example, at the close of the fiscal year, New Jersey courts held more than 156,000 remote events, in all subject matter areas, with more than 2 million participants,” Rabner stated. ”As we continue to confront challenges posed by COVID-19, we must also continue to work together on solutions that ensure timely access to justice for every citizen.”
“In many respects, COVID-19 has changed our court system, and indeed our society, permanently,” stated Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the courts. “It highlights a reality we have known all along — our courts must continue to evolve if we are to effectively serve the public.
“If we are to continue to bring crucial services to the public, we must plan to meet new challenges with dedication, ingenuity, and an ever-constant reimagining of court operations,” Grant added.
Despite the judiciary’s efforts to timely handle cases, there is a growing backlog in some divisions. In the Civil Division, the Special Civil tenancy case backlog grew 206% since June 2020. The Family Division has seen the dissolution case backlog grow 37%. The total backlog for the state was 101,603 cases, a 61% increase over the 2020 number. Included in the total backlog number are 10,134 multicounty litigation cases.
A recent op-ed in the New Jersey Law Journal by the Young Lawyers Advisory Board addressed the ongoing problem of judicial vacancies coinciding with courts attempting to resume normal operations post-COVID.
“Access to justice and the number of judicial vacancies are inextricably tied,” the op-ed stated. “The remarkably high number of judicial vacancies combined with the backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic places an undue burden on our current judges and court operations and requires immediate action by the Legislative and Executive branches of government.”
The board warned that the vacancies have led to an overwhelming backlog of cases that affects every corner of the judiciary.
The numbers in the report seem to support that contention with some of the counties experiencing the highest number of judicial vacancies also recording the highest number of backlogged cases.
Essex County currently has six judicial vacancies in the Superior Court and reported 23,356 active cases over time goals. Bergen County still has eight judicial vacancies and 10,925 backlogged cases. Hudson and Passaic counties both stand at six vacancies and each have more than 7,000 backlogged cases.
“The substantial impact of these vacancies on the judicial system cannot be overstated, especially for marginalized groups,” the board said. “In addition to the length of time of cases remain pending, sitting judges are charged with handling considerably heavier caseloads, placing an inordinate amount of pressure on our judges to deliver quality and timely decisions.”
“Governor Murphy has vigorously worked to fill judicial vacancies since he took office in 2018,” said Natalie Hamilton, the governor’s press assistant, in a recent statement.
“Since then, the Senate has confirmed a total of 91 Superior Court judges nominated by the Governor,” Hamilton said. “In calendar year 2022, 36 new Superior Court judges have been confirmed by the Senate in just over [nine] months, making this one of the most productive years for judicial confirmations in recent history.
“Currently, 15 judicial nominees await confirmation by the Senate. The Governor remains committed to identifying qualified and capable individuals to best serve New Jersey,” Hamilton added.
In court year 2021, the New Jersey bar admitted 1,760 new attorneys, a more than 16% increase over the prior year. The Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection, overseen by the Supreme Court and supported by payments from the state’s lawyers and judges, reimbursed clients more that $2.3 million for the transgressions of 25 attorneys. The number was a decrease from the more than $5.2 million in reimbursements approved for client losses caused by 27 attorneys in the 2020 report.
The Appellate Division decided 4,656 cases, filed 2,359 opinions, and published 123 opinions. While the number of published decisions remained the same as last year, both the number of appeals decided and opinions filed decreased. The 2020 report stated 5,671 appeals were decided and 2,729 opinions were filed.
Of the 102 petitions for certification, direct certifications, or appeals by leave granted, the New Jersey Supreme Court heard 72 appeals and filed 69 opinions. Those numbers remained roughly the same as the 2020 numbers.