At the very core of judicial independence is the notion that courts and judges decide matters in accordance with the evidence and legal precedent, independent from political power or outside controls. The question of whether a bipartisan and independent judiciary is still alive and well in New Jersey has been called into question recently, as Governor Christie has been accused of packing the state supreme court with only those judges with whom he asserts his influence and will rule his way.
Since the New Jersey state constitution was ratified in 1947, every sitting state supreme court justice has been re-nominated for tenure by the governor after his or her initial seven-year term, regardless of whether the governor agreed with the justice’s rulings. . . until now. The seat of Justice John Wallace has been vacant since May 2010, after Christie failed to grant him tenure following his initial seven-year term. There is fear that Christie has created a climate in which fair and impartial justices fear for their futures if he doesn’t like a ruling. Some criminal defense lawyers believe that a signal is being unfairly sent to judges that they have to align their decisions with those of Governor Christie in order to seek reappointment, which may be detrimental to their clients’ interests, given that Christie has promised to make New Jersey courts more conservative.
The New Jersey State Bar Association created a task force earlier this year to study this issue of New Jersey judicial independence with a goal of producing a report that will contain recommendations for preserving the independence of the New Jersey judiciary. The task force held four hearings over the past several months and also accepted written comments during the same time period, all on the subject of judicial independence in New Jersey. It is anticipated that the Task Force will submit its report in the near future.
In the meantime, as a result of this standoff between Governor Christie, a Republican governor looking to nominate judges who will decide his way, and a democratic state Senate, which must confirm all of the Governor’s picks for the bench, a political stalemate has been created. Individual state senators also have the power to block appointments in their home counties – for any reason and without the need to give a reason, although several experts believe that this unwritten custom of “senatorial courtesy” should be abolished. Many blame this practice in part for holding up reasonable negotiations and preventing entire packages of judges from getting through to fill vacancies in the courts. Over the past six decades, senatorial courtesy has become a tool that can and has been used as a bargaining chip in bitter partisan battles.
This fall, the number of sitting judges in New Jersey hit the lowest point in almost 15 years, with rising case backlogs. Several counties in New Jersey face judicial vacancy rates greater than 20%. As a result, parties can sit for months in legal logjam, due to longer wait times and judges who are stretched beyond their capabilities. This can be particularly difficult for people seeking divorce or custody settlements or business disputes or criminal complaints. In August, Governor Christie and the state Senate reached a deal to fill eight such vacancies, which left a whopping 44 judicial vacancies or roughly 10% of the judicial seats in the state.
To help reduce the number of open seats and to keep the case calendar moving, court officials have called back retired judges, as it is a much easier process to call back retirees than the lengthy and cumbersome process of appointing new judges. As of November 6, there were 77 judges in Superior courts who reside on the bench past the mandatory retirement age of 70, alongside 392 active Superior Court judges. However, this practice of calling back retired judges is being challenged before the Supreme Court of New Jersey in State v. Buckner.
The Appellant Buckner was convicted of armed robbery and assault in 2012 and is currently serving a nine-year sentence. He argues that he is entitled to a new trial because the judge who convicted him retired in 2008 at the age of 70 but was recalled the same year. If he is successful in his challenge to judicial recall of judges past mandatory retirement age, the vacancy problem could become much, much worse. On the flip side, a constitutional amendment has been introduced in the New Jersey legislature to raise the mandatory retirement age from 70 to 75, which would help to alleviate some of the need to recall judges.
Some would say that New Jersey courts are at a crisis point. Partisan bickering and stubbornness must give way to action for the benefit of the millions of New Jerseyans who use the New Jersey court system each year.