The Critical Role of New Jersey Courts
Justice delayed is too often justice denied. Ready access to New Jersey courts does more than you may think to secure, protect, and promote the welfare of New Jersey residents. The courts are the backstop for fundamental American rights and responsibilities. Without functioning courts, chaos would reign, turning New Jersey's stable and attractive towns and neighborhoods into something more like a third-world country.
A Large Fly in New Jersey Justice's Ointment
Yet New Jersey's courts are today facing a special and unnecessary challenge: dozens of judgeships remain empty because of an extra-legal tradition of senatorial courtesy. Approximately 60 of 457 Superior Court judgeships, or fully 16%, are vacant. Courts can't function without judges. New Jersey's legislature has approved hundreds of Superior Court judge positions, enough to adequately staff the Superior Courts. The Superior Courts are the frontlines for justice as the New Jersey courts of general jurisdiction. Their Law Division, Chancery Division, Probate Division, Appellate Division, and county or regional vicinages arraign criminal defendants, hear domestic violence disputes, address firearms and weapons charges, place and protect children, approve guardianships, and probate estates, among many other critical protective actions.
When a Courtesy Becomes an Offense
A courtesy is one thing. An insult or offense is another. Senatorial courtesy has nothing directly to do with the qualifications of the nominees for the many vacant Superior Court judgeships. The nominees for those judgeships have generally been through a rigorous and deliberately balanced vetting process, ensuring their qualifications. Under the state's constitution, the governor appoints judges on the state senate's advice and consent. But all judges go through the vetting process. Half the judges are to be from each political party. And all judges face term limits and a mandatory age of 70 for retirement. This balance makes New Jersey's judiciary among the most respected in the country. Senatorial courtesy, though, allows the state senator from the nominee's home county or district to block the nominee's appointment. Senatorial courtesy isn't law. It isn't in the code or constitution. Senatorial courtesy is its own check and balance. But taken too far, a check wielded too often and too strictly creates a dangerous imbalance.
A Step in the Right Direction
New Jersey's Senate recently consented to the seating of two highly qualified Supreme Court justices. Perhaps that step will become the first of many more necessary steps in the right direction toward reducing the backlog of vacant Superior Court judgeships. The New Jersey State Bar Association and other public and professional representatives continue to advocate for the elimination, reduction, or responsible use of senatorial courtesy. Let's all hope that cooler heads prevail and New Jersey gets its needed Superior Court judges.