As of April of 2012, courts in Union County, New Jersey had 863 civil cases in backlog, that is, 863 cases that could not be heard because there are no judges to preside. This is the largest backlog in this county’s history and will now result in a historic event: a suspended judicial season in civil court. Throughout July and August of 2012, the court (located in the City of Elizabeth) will not hear a single case (although criminal cases will continue as usual). This was reported recently by Julia Terruso of the Newark, New Jersey-based Star-Ledger.
The county currently has seven vacancies on the bench, but the retirement of two additional judges at the end of the summer will cause this number to grow to nine. This lack of judges has even forced two judges out of retirement to hear cases part-time, known as “working on recall.” But not even these officials can slow down the backlog. By the end of August 2012, this court will only have 16 of its 25 seats filled.
So where does this leave those citizens with cases pending in Union County? Quite simply, they’re out of luck. With case numbers rising and the number of judges falling, it goes without saying that justice will be delayed for months and even years for those average Americans who want to have their day in court, a day they are guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution. This means it will take longer to recover from a foreclosure, more time waiting for an insurance payment due to product liability, medical negligence or construction accidents, and even longer waits for divorces.
This blog has covered underfunded judiciary issues in the past, basing a post on an article in the international weekly newspaper The Economist. The article, published in September 2011, pointed out several startling statistics that are wider in scope than just this example in New Jersey. For example, the American Bar Association found that most states have slashed judicial budgets by up to 15 percent and “26 [states] have stopped filling judicial vacancies, 34 have stopped replacing clerks, 31 have frozen or cut the salaries of judges or staff.”
The author of The Economist piece also points out that the average trial court judge in New York State earns less than a first-year associate at a high-tier law firm. This sad fact has forced many good judges off the bench and back into private practice to ensure their personal financial stability.
According to the Washington Economics Group analysis of Florida courts in 2009, its backlog cost the state $9.8 billion from their GDP per year. This is astonishing because the operating cost of the entire statewide judicial system is only $1.2 billion. This lack of funds has led many courts throughout the country to increase filing fees for suits, thus making it increasingly difficult for middle- and lower-class families to access the civil justice system they have the constitutional right to use.
Rebecca Love Kourlis of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System claims that this threatens the idea of Americans’ equal right to justice and equality under the law, to which the American Bar Association adds, “the underfunding of our judicial system threatens the fundamental nature of our tripartite system of government.”