Essex County, besieged with the highest judicial vacancies in the state, is getting by with a little help from nine judges borrowed from other counties and eight retired judges on recall status.
All nine loaner judges — most of them newly appointed to the bench — were assigned to Essex County within the past year and most within the past three months.
The reliance on judges from elsewhere has grown as the Essex bench has seen many veteran judges retire without being replaced.
The county has 18 judicial vacancies, nearly half the 39 judicial vacancies in the state, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. Middlesex and Union counties tie for a distant second, with five vacancies each.
Essex County Assignment Judge Patricia Costello says transferring judges across county lines is not a new practice, but admits that Essex has never seen as many judges from other counties as it has now.
The judicial shortage prompted Costello to suspend all divorce trials and trials of civil cases on Track 3 and Track 4, including product liability, toxic torts, professional malpractice and affordable housing, in 2011. Trials of complex civil cases resumed in March of 2012 and matrimonial trials in June of that year.
Costello says the assistance of judges from other counties is helping to close the gap and no more measures of that sort are contemplated.
"Unless something changes drastically, we’re keeping our neck above water," she says.
Decisions about allocating judges among the counties are made entirely by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. "It’s a statewide judiciary and we have a lot of people that are assigned based on need, not based on county of origin," she says.
The borrowed judges serving in Essex County are: from Hudson County, Nesle Rodriguez, assigned to the Family Part, and Christine Farrington, in the Civil Part; from Monmouth County, Angela White Dalton, assigned to the Family Part; from Morris County, Michael Hubner and Stephen Taylor, both in the Civil Part, and Peter Bogaard, assigned to the Family Part; from Passaic County, Randal Chiocca, in the Civil Part; and Daniel Yablonsky, in the Family Part; and from Somerset County, Wayne Forrest, in the Family Part.
Hubner and Forrest got their Essex County assignments in 2012, with the others receiving those assignments this year. The Essex postings are being doled out to judges who are starting out their careers. Seven have received their confirmations as judges since 2011.
Also helping Essex County bridge the gap are eight judges serving on recall — in the Civil Part, W. Hunt Dumont, Mahlon Fast, Edith Payne and Theodore Winard; in the Criminal Part, Michael Petrolle; and in the Family Part, Claude Coleman, Craig Harris and James Troiano.
The dearth of new judicial nominations for Essex County shows no signs of abating. In remarks before the Essex County Bar Association last month, Gov. Chris Christie accused Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, of blocking his appointments through senatorial courtesy. Codey later replied that the governor had not nominated any judges in Essex County in three years. Last year, Christie argued with Codey and other senators over the governor’s nomination of Christopher Cerf as state education commissioner.
The gridlock over judicial nominations in Essex County had been so problematic that Paula Dow, a former attorney general, moved to Burlington County and was nominated for a judgeship there when the political dispute held up her nomination in to Superior Court in Essex County.
Since local practitioners and the newly arrived jurists may be unfamiliar with each other, the Essex County Bar Association held a breakfast Tuesday morning to provide its members and the judges with meet-and-greet opportunities. But turnout was sparse among judges, possibly because some of them live far away from Newark and have long commutes, says association president Thomas Quinn.
Indeed, Dalton, assigned to Essex County upon her February confirmation, lives in Howell, which is 56 miles from Newark. Taylor, of Montgomery, lives 42 miles from Newark, and it’s 41 miles to Newark for Wayne Forrest of Hillsborough.
Quinn says the new judges seem to have settled in quickly, and he commended them for helping Essex County in its time of need.
"The reports I’ve received are that those judges who have been assigned by the chief justice to serve in Essex have done so as the professionals they are — they have been just outstanding," says Quinn. "They’ve quickly made good names for themselves as very, very good jurists."
Still, says Quinn, he believes that "a number of them would prefer to end up in the county where they practiced." And borrowing judges from other counties "isn’t a permanent solution, in my mind. If they are here five years from now, are they going to have the same attitude? I’d like to think they would but the practical answer is no."
The Morris County Bar Association President, Mark Wechsler, doesn’t object to the loss of three judges from his county to Essex County. Wechsler, a family law practitioner at Einhorn, Harris, Ascher, Barbarito & Frost in Denville, says he practices in multiple counties around the state, giving him a global view of judicial shortages.
"I understand Essex is in a particularly bad way. It’s unfortunate for all of us but it’s probably best to share," Wechsler says.
The intercounty assignments can’t be said to have caused any signification depletion of the judicial ranks in the judges’ counties of origin—Hudson County has one vacancy, according to data from the Administrative Office of the Courts, but Morris, Passaic, Somerset and Monmouth counties have none.