New Jersey’s federal judge shortage increased recently when U.S. District Judge Peter Sheridan assumed senior status, and it’s unknown when the White House might announce any New Jersey judicial nominees.
Sheridan, who went on the bench in 2006, assumed senior status on June 14, according to federal judiciary records. His change in classification brings the number of vacancies on New Jersey’s federal bench to four, out of 17 authorized judgeships.
What’s more, two of those four New Jersey seats have been vacant since 2015—formerly occupied by Faith Hochberg and William Martini. Another vacancy, the seat formerly occupied by Jerome Simandle, has been open since last year. Both Martini and Simandle, like Sheridan, are on senior status, which allows them to take a reduced caseload, although some senior judges continue to work a full-time schedule.
The number of vacancies on the federal bench will reach five in October when U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler assumes senior status.
Chief U.S. District Judge Jose Linares said Sheridan will have a reduced caseload on senior status, as he is entitled to do, and other judges in the district will become eligible for senior status in 2018. With no new judges on the way, the district is “in a judicial crisis,” he said.
“I’m imploring the powers that be at the White House and the Senate to do something about it,” Linares said.
Since the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts has determined that New Jersey’s federal bench should be expanded to 20 judges, and has asked Congress to fund the additional positions, the district is short seven judges from its optimal staffing level, Linares said.
Linares said that because of statutory requirements that the court grant a speedy trial in criminal cases—and similar requirements for some other types of cases, such as patent disputes concerning generic drugs—cases that are not subject to any time constraints will suffer when the court is short of judges.
Asked if he would consider imposing a moratorium on some categories of litigation, in the manner that Essex County Superior Court did during an 2011-13 judicial shortage, Linares said “that topic has come up.” In December 2011, when it faced an 11-judge shortage, Essex froze all trials in complex civil cases and in family matters that did not involve child custody. The civil cases were restarted in March 2012, and the family law cases in early 2013.
Linares said he has traveled to Washington and met with the White House Counsel and with Sens. Corey Booker and Robert Menendez to discuss the district’s judge shortage. He has also asked the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for funds to create additional magistrate judgeships, a move that does not require action by Congress, Linares said. In addition. he is seeking funding to expand the court’s staff reviewing prisoner litigation, Linares said.
The judicial shortage can have a great personal impact on some litigants, Linares said, such as those parties appealing administrative determinations regarding Social Security benefits.
“It’s not a problem for the judges. The effect is on the litigants,” he said.
One candidate for the federal bench, Bergen County Counsel Julien Neals, was nominated by President Barack Obama in February 2015, and in November of that year his nomination was reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Neals’ nomination expired in January 2017 without coming up for a vote.
Meanwhile, two other candidates for the New Jersey bench who were nominated by Obama after Neals’ nomination were confirmed. John Michael Vazquez was nominated in March 2015 and confirmed in January 2016. Brian Martinotti was nominated in June 2015 and was confirmed in July 2016.
The shortage of judges in the District of New Jersey has not gone unnoticed by some in Washington, at least at the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, which considers the vacancies created by Hochberg and Martini “judicial emergencies” based on caseload, complexity of cases and the length of time that vacancies have been pending.
“It’s getting close to crisis mode,” William Reilly of McCarter & English, president of the Association of the Federal Bar of the State of New Jersey, said of the federal court vacancies.
“I know Chief Judge Linares is working as hard as he can, working to have the court provide services to people that need them. They’ve done a fantastic job but it’s getting to crisis mode,” Reilly said.
The association wrote to the office of White House counsel in March to emphasize the need to fill the court’s vacancies, and received an acknowledgment, Reilly said. “As far as I know, there’s nothing in the hopper as far as any potential nominee,” he said. “We’d love to hear something soon.”
One New Jersey lawyer familiar with the judicial nomination process said it’s likely that no nominees have been announced because Booker, a Democrat, is seeking to resurrect the nomination of Neals, and doing so would require Booker to cut a deal with the White House. The attorney, who emphasized having no direct contacts with the state’s senators or the White House, nevertheless expressed confidence that a breakthrough would be forthcoming.
“To get a Democratic person on the federal bench when you have a Republican in the White House is a problem, and they always have to strike deals,” the attorney said.
The offices of Booker and Menendez didn’t return calls regarding the judicial vacancies.
Neals was one of 20 Obama picks whose nominations expired at the beginning of 2017, and 12 of those have already been renominated by the White House, according to Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia who studies federal judicial selection. Five of the 12 have been confirmed.
“To me, that’s a sign there isn’t a mark against someone [previously nominated by Obama] or that the White House isn’t standing on ceremony on that,” Tobias said.
New Jersey is not the only “blue” state that has had a long wait for judicial nominations: California and Massachusetts have multiple District Court vacancies but have yet to see any nominations from the Trump White House, Tobias noted.
Booker has been a powerful supporter of Neals’ judicial candidacy, and now that he sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he could help advance a Neals nomination, Tobias added, but if Neals or any other New Jersey judicial candidate is nominated in the near future, the upcoming midterm elections would slow the pace of their confirmation.
“It’s getting kind of late to get them through. I think it might be 2019″ before New Jersey sees a new federal judge, Tobias said.