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In New Jersey, the real test of whether the sweeping new “best practices” lives up to its name may be in counties where judicial vacancies linger, and where imposing stringent procedures and more active case management could overtax an already hobbled system. But in New Jersey counties that share in the 34 unfilled judgeships statewide, the new rules — which promise fewer cases on trial tracks, faster adjudications and more settlements — may actually alleviate the judge deficit problem, some judges say. Judge Neil Shuster, chairman of the Conference of Civil Presiding Judges that created the best practices rules, says the number of available judges was not taken into account. While it’s difficult to predict how heavily understaffed counties like Passaic and Essex will fare, there will be no excuses, he says. Each county will be expected to comply with the rules regardless of how many judges are on hand. “Judicial vacancies and staffing are issues over which we have no control,” Shuster says. “We have to conduct business irrespective of those circumstances.” The new rules govern almost all areas of trial practice, including case management, discovery, motions, arbitration, settlements and adjournments. In addition, cases inactive for more than four months will be dismissed without prejudice after notice to the attorneys, barring exceptional circumstances. The overall goal is to create a uniform system that moves cases more quickly toward a definite trial date. The rules are expected to increase motion filings, an impact more likely to be felt by court staff than trial judges, Shuster says. However, he expects that more settlements also will result as cases move more quickly toward a certain trial date. A key testing ground for best practices is likely to be in Essex county, which leads the counties in the number of judicial vacancies, now 10. Assignment Judge Joseph Falcone and Civil Presiding Judge Eugene Codey were on vacation last week and unavailable for comment, but Trial Court Administrator Collins Ijoma says he is concerned that the system will be stretched to the limit. The staff has been trained and is ready to implement the new procedures, but having fewer judges won’t help matters, he says. “We plan to do it based on what we now have,” Ijoma says. “But it will hurt our efforts if we don’t have all of the vacancies filled.” In other counties, such as Passaic, there is a little more hope that the new procedures will help clear dockets even without a full staff of judges. The county, which is down by three judges, began introducing elements of the best practices rules a year ago as a way to try to reduce its backlog, says Assignment Judge Robert Passero. Among the changes, the county took a more stringent approach to adjournment, particularly with older cases, A recall judge, Burrell Humphreys, was assigned to handle those cases, some a decade old or more. The hard line is consistent with the best practices rules, which require that requests for adjournments be in writing, including a proposed trial date agreed upon by all the parties, and that last-minute adjournments for dispositive motions are barred. “We had a strict no-adjournment policy on those cases, and we made significant reductions in those cases,” Passero says. The county has reduced its backlog from 47 percent of its caseload to less than 30 percent, Passero says. Because cases will move faster toward a trial date under the new rules, the process may also weed out frivolous matters, Passero speculates. “The rule requirements are going to force lawyers to take a good look-see at what cases they just throw into suit,” he says. The number of civil cases filed in Passaic dropped by 11 percent in the past year with the adoption of the new rules, Passero says. For the 12 months ending on June 30, 7,736 civil cases were filed, compared with 8,727 during the preceding 12 months, Passero says. Camden County Assignment Judge Francis Orlando agrees with Passero that the new rules probably will relieve some of the pressure created by judicial vacancies — four out of 31 spots. Like Passero, Orlando says the transition will be less dramatic in his county because some of the practices have been in use for some time. One example is the judicial case management system, which requires the same judge to handle a case through the pretrial stage. Camden County has been using that technique for about two decades now, Orlando says. One major change that should help expedite cases and lead to settlements is the switch from bifurcated to consolidated trials in routine liability cases such as personal injury suits, Orlando says. Bergen County’s Assignment Judge Sybil Moses says that having three fewer judges in the county simply means everyone is going to have to work harder. “The vacancies themselves will not affect our compliance,” Moses says. “Everybody is redoubling their efforts.” A subcommittee of the Conference of Civil Presiding Judges will meet next month to plan how to monitor the new rules’ progress. Although the methods have not yet been determined, Shuster says it will likely include a combination of surveys and judicial visits to each vicinage. “Both the bar and the bench are in for what could be a difficult transition period. But once we are used to this new way of doing business, I think the bench and the bar will be much more satisfied with how business is being done,” he says.

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