When a seat on the United States Supreme Court opens up, everyone in the nation seems to know about it, and have strong opinions about it. There is, moreover, an understanding that the high court plays a critical role, and should not be short-staffed.
Compare this to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Our state’s highest court is scheduled to reconvene in less than a month, but there are currently three vacant seats (out of seven). There is no indication that the State Senate is ready to take action on any potential nominees. And the public does not seem to be concerned.
To attorneys like Andrew Dressel and Chris Malikschmitt, who handle many of their cases in the New Jersey court system, the difference is astounding.
What’s going on with the New Jersey Supreme Court?
For the first time since at least 1947, when our state’s latest constitution was adopted, and the court system was completely overhauled, almost half of the high court’s seats are empty.
In March 2021, Justice Jaynee LaVecchia announced she planned to retire from the court. She agreed to stay on for a while longer to allow the governor time to find a replacement, but eventually stepped away in December 2021 when no action was taken to fill her seat.
LaVecchia is the latest justice to hold what is traditionally the only non-partisan seat on the seven-member court. There are typically three Democrats, three Republicans, and one independent on the New Jersey high court. She was the longest-serving member of the court, having held her seat for 21 years.
Two months after LaVecchia left, in February 2022, Justice Faustino “Fuzzy” Fernandez-Vina turned 70, the mandatory retirement age for New Jersey judges. Fernandez-Vina was a Republican nominee, and the first Hispanic justice to serve on New Jersey’s high court.
The third justice to step down was Justice Barry Albin, who reached the mandatory retirement age this July. Albin, a Democrat appointed in 2002, was widely considered the most progressive member of the court. Before his appointment, he worked as a public defender and civil rights lawyer. He authored many influential opinions in those areas during his time on the court.
What happens next?
Chief Justice Rabner has the power to call up lower court judges to temporarily fill seats on the high court. Initially, he insisted that the governor and senate do their jobs and fill the vacant seats.
But no such action was taken, and desperate times call for desperate measures. In order to have a quorum at the start of the 2022-23 term on September 1st, Chief Justice Rabner was forced to temporarily call up the Honorable Clarkson S. Fisher, Jr., Jack M. Sabatino, and Douglas M. Fasciale to serve on the high court. As Rabner notes in his order making this change, “Those reassignments will have a significant effect on the Appellate Division.”
Will my case be impacted by the vacancies?
If the vacancies on the New Jersey Supreme Court are not permanently filled by Gov. Murphy and
the State Senate, the court’s ability to function will be significantly impaired. It could end up taking up fewer cases, and taking longer to decide the cases it does hear.
The impact of the high court vacancies will filter down to the rest of the judicial system, which is already dealing with a huge backlog of cases due to covid-related shutdown and the unprecedented number of vacancies at the appellate and trial court levels. It is likely that cases that go to trial or get appealed will take much longer to resolve over the coming years than they have in the past.
Unfortunately, problem at the high court is compounded by the fact that the judicial staffing issue is not limited to the Supreme Court as there is an extraordinary number of vacancies at the appellate and trial court levels as well. New Jersey’s judiciary, as a whole, has been stretched thin and civil litigation across the state is starting to feel the pinch.
Contact Dressel/Malikschmitt Today
If you have questions about New Jersey’s legal system, or how the current court vacancies may impact your case, Dressel/Malikschmitt is here for you. Our experienced team is ready to answer your questions, and advise you of what options are available when a dispute arises. Please contact us to schedule a meeting.