Divorce and civil cases halted in 6 New Jersey counties amid judge shortage

Most divorce and civil cases in six New Jersey counties will not be conducted as the state grapples with a shortage of judges, officials announced Tuesday.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said there is an overwhelming number of judicial vacancies in Hunterdon, Somerset, Warren, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties.

"There are simply not enough judges at this time to conduct civil and matrimonial trials in either vicinage," he said in a news release, calling the situation "particularly challenging."

There are 69 vacant positions throughout the trial courts, more than 1 out of every 6 positions statewide, Rabner said. In Vicinage, or district, 13, which covers Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren counties, five of 20 judicial positions are vacant. Of the 28 judgeships in vicinage 15, which is made up of Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, there are nine vacancies.

"That imposes heightened responsibilities on sitting judges who handle thousands of proceedings and motions each month," Rabner said.

For the past three years, the court has operated with an average of 50 vacancies, he said. Because of the shortage, coupled with the impact of the Covid pandemic, cases have been delayed, and there are "substantial increases in backlog." To best serve the public, the number of vacancies should be no higher than 25 or 30, Rabner told NorthJersey.com.

Rabner warned in his statement that without any relief, other counties could be put in a similar situation.

The suspensions in vicinages 13 and 15 will begin Feb. 21, except in "very limited circumstances," Rabner said without disclosing further details. New Jersey Courts did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Priority has been given to cases in which people's "liberty is at stake," including criminal and juvenile delinquency matters and cases that present potential emergencies, like domestic violence issues, he said.

"We recognize that when the doors of the courthouse are closed — even partially — people entitled to their day in court suffer real harm. We therefore respectfully call on the Executive and Legislative branches to address the current vacancy crisis in Vicinages 13 and 15 as well as other parts of the state," Rabner said. "We look forward to a resumption of all proceedings in both vicinages as soon as possible."

Gov. Phil Murphy's office said Tuesday that he is "committed to ensuring vacancies in New Jersey’s courts are filled by highly qualified individuals who demonstrate unwavering integrity and dedication to service, while reflecting the diversity of the New Jerseyans that they are sworn to serve."

Since 2018 when he took office, 101 judges have been nominated and confirmed, including 45 last year. Another 17 nominations are pending Senate confirmation.

Last year, the New Jersey Bar Association demanded that Murphy fill the vacant positions as quickly as possible. In a letter dated Feb. 2, 2022, the association said the number of vacancies has been allowed to "grow into a full boil of crisis."

"While some view discussions about judicial vacancies to be an esoteric issue, it has very real consequences on the members of the public and business owners who turn to the courts to resolve disputes. With the historic number of vacancies that have been pending for the past several years, there are too few judges serving the bench, resulting in too many people waiting for justice. The need to take action is real and must occur now," the association said.

Murphy's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com