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New Jersey has a statewide shortage - in fact a major shortage - of judges.

To alleviate the desperate situation in the Appellate Division, two Superior Court judges, including one from Ocean County, will be temporarily appointed to the higher court, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has announced.

The two Superior Court judges who will be appointed to the Appellate Division, effective August 1, 2023, are Judge James R. Paganelli and Judge Lisa A. Puglisi.

Judge Puglisi currently serves in the Criminal Division in the Ocean Vicinage.

At a recent Assembly Budget Committee meeting, Glenn A. Grant, Administrative Director of the Courts, spoke regarding Judiciary operations and the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. He also highlighted the shortage of judges statewide and urged the Legislature to do their part to assist in filling the vacancies.

Below are excepts from his report:

The main message is the same as it has been for several years now. 

For the past three years, the court system has operated with an average of more than 50 vacancies. A year ago, we warned of the need to reduce that number to a manageable level of between 25 and 30. 

We are no longer headed toward a crisis. We are in the middle of one. 

This past February, Chief Justice Rabner took the unprecedented step of shutting down civil and matrimonial trials, except under very limited circumstances, in two of our court vicinages.

We in the Judiciary are mindful of the special role we play in society. That role is to provide a neutral forum for citizens and businesses of this state to resolve their disputes, protect victims and children from real harm, protect the rights and liberties and ensure equal justice for all. The continuing judge vacancy predicament threatens our ability to fully and timely perform that role. This crisis has required that we prioritize certain emergency and constitutional liberty matters over other cases. 

As of today, our courts are operating with 58 judicial vacancies, while confronting a massive backlog of cases created by the combined effects of years of high vacancy numbers and the Covid-19 pandemic. And while new judges are being nominated and confirmed, another 22 judges are expected to retire between now and the end of the calendar year. Merely keeping pace with retirements does not help us dig out of the hole. 

As the Chief Justice noted in his February statement, without additional relief, without more judges, we may well be faced with similar needs to suspend civil and matrimonial trials in other vicinages.

Throughout the state, the continued high number of vacancies causes real harm to the individuals seeking to address their matters with the courts. 

Victims seeking financial compensation are left in limbo. 

Married couples with children who are seeking to work out divorce agreements have their lives put on hold. 

Businesses are unable to settle contract disputes. 

And the backlog of cases throughout our justice system – in our civil, general equity, family, and criminal divisions – continues to rise.

As the attorneys on this committee know, nothing makes the court docket move like the prospect of a judge saying, “You may call your first witness.” We saw this clearly during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. When there is no ability to set realistic trial dates, there is little incentive for parties to resolve their case.

Some cases filed three to four years ago are still awaiting trial dates.

The impact of the pandemic and judge vacancies has particular implications for the criminal division. Criminal trials were severely hampered by the public health emergency, and as a result we are confronted with a significant increase in both the number of detained defendant trials and the number of defendants on pretrial release. We have witnessed more than a 50% increase in the number of people on pretrial release over the past three years -- from 30,000 to 46,000 -- because of the delays in trials. The Judiciary is seeking to increase the funding for our pretrial staff from $24 million to $30 million so that we can properly monitor these defendants on pretrial release.

While the situation is dire, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the incredible efforts of our judges and administrative staff to perform their duties and responsibilities despite the judicial and staffing vacancies. However, if we are to confront the challenges before us and provide the public with the level of service they are entitled to receive, we need more judges hearing cases. 

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