In the more than 20 years that the Law Journal has been asking the New Jersey bar to rate the quality of judging in this state, some things never seem to change.
The main conclusions that this, our sixth survey, brings out are those we have observed consistently in prior reports
None of these conclusions are remarkable by themselves, but they do document a regularity of viewpoint that has not changed in two decades — even while the lawyer and judge populations have rolled over considerably.
The survey shows:
• On the whole, lawyers are quite satisfied with the judiciary of this state. The average overall score statewide was 8.04 on a 1-to-10 scale — almost exactly the average found in our last survey.
• Judges are generally rated highest for their lack of racial, ethnic or gender bias, as well as their lack of bias or favoritism with respect to lawyers and their clients.
• Running a close second is widespread agreement that judges show courtesy and respect for lawyers and their clients.
• Judges who score high for demeanor tend to score high across the board.
• Judges’ ability to handle complex matters and to foster settlements are targets of the strongest criticism.
• Assignment judges and presiding judges are rated proportionally higher than others.
• When lawyers are generally satisfied with the judges in a vicinage, they tend to grade all judges in that vicinage on a higher curve.
• Conversely, where morale is low, the grading is harsher, such that all the judges in the vicinage are dragged down.
For example, lawyers in southern and rural vicinages — where lawyers are fewer and the bar is more close knit — continue to give out higher marks than their counterparts in northern, urban areas.
The vicinages that fared best in the survey this year based on overall scores were Burlington (8.15), Mercer (8.14) and Somerset/Warren/Hunterdon (8.09).
The lowest scores fell in the most lawyer-populated vicinages with (as the local bars tell it) the most overworked court systems: Bergen (7.92), Essex (7.93) and Passaic (7.98).
A look at the averages for scores in each of the categories queried [see chart] makes it clear that the relative buoyancy or disconsolation was across the board. Sorting the scores for any of nine questions generally produces the same ranking.
But even in the vicinages where judges fared worst, the marks given for freedom from bias were high. No vicinage scored lower in that category than 8.68, against a statewide average of 8.79.
Ditto for demeanor. The lowest vicinage score for grading a judge’s courtesy and respect for lawyers and litigants was 8.32 against a statewide average of 8.51.
If there is one incontrovertible truth for judges who take this survey to heart, it is that people skills can go a long way towards improving overall scores.
It was again evident, as in past surveys, that assignment judges and presiding judges were often graded higher than other judges in the same vicinage.
There are different schools of thought to explain this. One is that supervisory judges, and especially assignment judges, can afford to be “good guys” because they stand above the fray and don’t have to make the tough calls. Another, perhaps more grounded explanation is that the judges chosen for these roles are more experienced and therefore savvy in their craft.
For example, Assignment Judge Peter Doyne in Bergen — the vicinage with the lowest average scores statewide — was graded a 9.17 overall: one of the top totals in the state.
Higher still, with a 9.24, was Presiding Civil Judge Kenneth Grispin of Union County.
And Burlington County Presiding Family Judge John Call bested them all, with a 9.26. He and Judge Lawrence Jones of Ocean County share the honors of the highest scores in the state.
Newly appointed judges typically were not rated as well as judges of long standing on the bench. There’s no doubt that these novices are on a learning curve. Added to that reality is the fact that most of the new judges are assigned to the Family Part — easily the most fractious venue and the one most likely to foment emotional turmoil. On the flip side, judges who have been on the bench for a long while tend to develop their own followings among the lawyers who see them frequently.
As with past surveys, the categories where judges were graded lowest statewide (7.68) were in ability to skillfully foster settlement and capability of handling complex cases (7.70).
On the whole, it is important to note that the gradations from the common mean scores, by vicinage and among individual judges, were not drastic. The survey respondents were careful in their grading — even under complete cover of anonymity — and that is a testament to the seriousness with which they undertook the task. •