U.S. District Judge Jose Linares
U.S. District Judge Jose Linares (Photo: Carmen Natale/ALM)

U.S. District Judge Jose Linares is preparing to become chief judge for the District of New Jersey on June 1, following a move to senior status for the current chief judge, Jerome Simandle.

Linares, 63, is set to take over at a time when New Jersey’s federal courts are coping with a heavy caseload and a shortage of judges. Born in Cuba, he becomes the first Hispanic chief judge in the District of New Jersey.

Linares graduated from what is now known as New Jersey City University and from Beasley School of Law at Temple University. He was a judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey in Essex County from 2000 to 2002 and was nominated to the District Court by President George W. Bush in 2002.

The elevation of Linares was greeted warmly by members of the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey. Linares was president of that group in 1995 and 1996.

“We congratulate Judge Linares on this significant achievement, which is historic for the state of New Jersey,” said the group’s current president, Arlene Quinones Perez, of DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, Cole & Giblin in Teaneck. “Judge Linares is a distinguished jurist with an impeccable professional and personal record of achievement. The HBA-NJ is extremely proud that Judge Linares once stood as president of the organization, and we certainly look to him for guidance as we continue to serve as the voice for the Hispanic community in New Jersey.”

In March, Linares stirred controversy when he sentenced former Attorney General David Samson to one year of home confinement for his role in a bribery scheme involving United Airlines, after prosecutors sought two years in jail. Samson, then chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was negotiating with the airline over a new hangar at Newark Airport when he asked for a regular flight to be scheduled to Columbia, South Carolina, which is close to his vacation home.

Linares also presides over a class action against the state and other defendants on behalf of individuals and businesses that were inconvenienced by traffic gridlock during the Bridgegate lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.

Linares was tied for fifth place overall among 20 federal judges in New Jersey in an October 2016 judicial survey by the New Jersey Law Journal. His highest scores in the survey were for courtesy and respect to litigants and lawyers and for lack of bias as to race, gender and party identity. Simandle came in first in the survey.

The chief judge serves a seven-year term. The position goes to the longest-serving judge who is 64 or younger, has served one or more years as a judge, and has not previously served as chief judge.

Simandle, 68, served as a U.S. magistrate judge from 1983 to 1992, was then nominated to the District Court by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, and became chief judge in 2012.

The District of New Jersey has two judicial vacancies on its 17-member federal bench, and that number will rise to three when Simandle takes senior status. The U.S. Judicial Conference has conferred judicial emergency status on the District of New Jersey, based on weighted caseload per judge, and has asked Congress to create three new judgeships, bringing the state’s judicial contingent to 20.

But filling vacant seats hasn’t always come easily. John Michael Vazquez and Brian Martinotti joined the court in 2016, but the nomination of Bergen County Counsel Julien Neals ran out in January without receiving a vote. Neals was nominated in February 2015 to a federal judgeship by President Barack Obama, and his nomination was reported out of committee in November 2015, but his nomination expired in January 2017 without a vote when the 114th session of Congress came to an end. And President Donald Trump has not nominated any candidates for judgeships in New Jersey.

“Certainly it is a very proud moment for me to become the chief of the federal court. It is the second-oldest federal court in the country, and one I’m very fond of, having been a member 13, almost 14 years. I consider it a great honor and a challenge to do this. I also understand it’s a daunting task—we are a very busy court,” Linares said.

Linares said of Simandle that he was “following in the footsteps of a great chief,” and added that he was also proud to be the first Hispanic to be chief judge of the District Court in New Jersey and the first Cuban-born chief judge in any district in the country. “Both of those things are important to me—what that represents for diversity in the courts is important,” he said.

The incoming chief judge said he has open lines of communication with the state’s representatives in Washington, and he said he is “assured they are working diligently to replace our judges.”

But more vacancies could be coming soon, he said, since U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler is already eligible for retirement, although he hasn’t elected to take that step yet, Linares said. And U.S. District Judge Peter Sheridan will soon become eligible for retirement, although he hasn’t said what his plans are, Linares said.

The District of New Jersey has a strong relationship with its trial lawyers, Linares said. “I’d love to continue that,” he said.

Mark Olinsky, president of the Association of the Federal Bar of the State of New Jersey, said he is confident in Linares’ ability to lead the district.

“We are indebted to Judge Simandle for his wise and careful stewardship of the District Court for the past five years he has served as chief judge. He has been a strong advocate for bringing additional, necessary judicial resources to our district,” Olinsky said. “Judge Linares, having served for almost 15 years on the District Court, is well aware of the challenges faced by our court, and we are confident in his ability to serve as a strong leader and administrator. “

Simandle was attending a conference and could not immediately be reached, according to a staffer at his chambers.