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Support for a plan to split New Jersey into two federal judicial districts is growing among lawyers and politicians, but the acid test will be the assent of the U.S. Judicial Conference, whose members have yet to weigh in. “As a matter of custom, wisely, Congress defers to the judicial branch on these questions,” says Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., who introduced the measure, H.R. 3835, last March. If the judiciary pans it, he won’t move it, the congressman says. The bill, which would create a new district of the Trenton and Camden vicinages, won an important endorsement on Sept. 15 when the New Jersey State Bar Association’s board of trustees approved the plan. Bar President Barry Epstein says the vote wasn’t even close. “I do believe, at least to some degree, the federal court was very interested in the State Bar’s decision,” Epstein says. “In the end, I don’t know how much weight our decision will have.” The Judicial Conference will consider the bill if New Jersey’s federal bench endorses it, says David Sellers, spokesman for the U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts. Anne Thompson, chief judge of New Jersey’s federal court district, assigned a committee last month to study the matter. The panel hopes to issue a report in December, says its chairman, Senior District Judge Stanley Brotman. Also on the committee are Judges Stephen Orlofsky, John Lifland, William Bassler and Garrett Brown Jr. A protocol established by the Judicial Conference in 1978 for evaluating changes to judicial-district boundaries calls for consideration of four factors: caseload, judicial administration, geography and community convenience. The protocol makes no mention of the fifth and most mercurial factor: politics. “At the end of the day, these factors are about political issues,” says Jeremy Frey, a former assistant U.S. attorney now practicing in Cherry Hill, N.J., and a proponent of the new southern New Jersey district. Frey, who served 16 years in the Camden office of the U.S. attorney before joining Pepper Hamilton in Cherry Hill, has helped to secure endorsements from Sen. Robert Torricelli, the state chapter of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, three southern New Jersey newspapers and the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey. Frey says prosecutors from Salem, Gloucester, Cape May, Camden, Burlington and Cumberland counties came out in support of the plan after getting special permission from the Attorney General’s Office to endorse a piece of legislation. “I suspect that this is an area in which the courts will take care not to deny a measure that enjoys popular and political support,” says Frey. “That support is indicative of political support that I think the judges in some measure must take account of.” Even with the judiciary’s support, the bill’s chances of passage depend to an extent on the makeup of the new Congress in January. “It’s something we’re going to push and fight for, but the landscape is unclear at this point,” says Torricelli spokesman Richard McGrath. Also endorsing the bill last week was Rep. William Pascrell, D-N.J., who joined the four members of Congress from southern New Jersey in giving his support. Southern New Jersey supporters say a second judicial district would direct more federal law enforcement resources to the south — the new district would have its own U.S. attorney — and would correct a historic under-representation of the state’s southern half in judgeships and other high-level jobs. The New Jersey Bar trustees’ vote was notable for the cross-territorial consensus among the counties that the division makes sense administratively. Trustees from Hudson, Somerset and Warren counties joined the nine southern counties (including Monmouth) in supporting the measure. For Hudson County, the decision came down to the inconvenience and added expense when northern New Jersey criminal and civil cases are assigned to courts in Trenton or Camden, says trustee Ralph Lamparello, who polled his colleagues on the matter. “There was no real discussion as far as substantive law,” says Lamparello, a partner at Chasan Leyner Bariso & Lamparello in Secaucus, N.J. “The only discussion was simply riding down to Camden. It’s a long, long ride. And for that matter, Trenton as well.” But for Bergen County trustee Bruce Chase, reassignment was not a factor in voting against endorsing the bill. Chase relied on data collected by Fair Lawn, N.J., attorney William Bochet, who polled Bergen County Bar Association members. He found concerns about additional taxpayer expense, which has not been quantified, and the nuisance of obtaining admission to an additional jurisdiction. But the biggest concern, Bochet says, was that northern New Jersey firms would lose out on business from cases in the southern New Jersey market, as clients would be likely to pick a firm in the same jurisdiction as the court. “People who work for larger firms felt that dividing the state as it was being divided would make it difficult for those firms to be competitive for the South Jersey cases,” says Bochet, a partner at Muscarella Bochet Peck & Edwards. Mercer County opposed the bill because it redirected cases from Somerset, Hunterdon and Middlesex counties from Trenton to Newark, leaving the newly expanded and remodeled federal courthouse in Trenton with a reduced role, says county Bar president Jeffrey Posta. The New Jersey Bar’s Federal Practice Section opposes the measure, saying in a position paper that “bifurcation of the federal court in this fourth-smallest state in the union would create needless opportunities for procedural mischief and confusion, encourage forum-shopping, and permit conflicting rules of federal law to develop.” Andrews says his bill may undergo some changes to answer opponents’ concerns, although he declines to elaborate. “I have no pride of authorship on this, and I am open to building the broadest possible consensus,” he says. In past cases where changes to boundaries of federal court districts were proposed, other politicians have not always exhibited the same deference that Andrews shows for the Judicial Conference. “Congress has absolute authority to do what it wants,” says Sellers, the federal courts’ spokesman. “Sometimes districts have been formed or split without the judicial conference weighing in at all.” Sellers notes that in California, a proposal to split the 9th Circuit has been mired in disagreements for more than 20 years, with the circuit’s judges opposing the change and the Judicial Conference refusing to take up the matter.

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