The New Jersey State Bar Association’s Task Force on Judicial Independence held the first of its four public hearings on April 1, 2014, at the New Jersey Law Center. Though over 20 people testified at the three-hour hearing, few offered concrete suggestions for how the court system could be improved. The majority of the testimony focused on perceived problems with the system.
The majority of the complaints centered on the interaction between the judicial branch and the legislative and executive branches. Specifically, Gov. Christie’s decision not to reappoint NJ Supreme Court Justices Wallace and Hoens, and the growing number of Superior Court vacancies.
Former judges and justices decried personal attacks on judges, citing instances where members of the executive and legislative branches had spoken out against the rulings of individual judges. They and others expressed their concern that there would soon be a lack of lawyers willing to give up their practices to serve as judges because of criticism from the other branches and the fear of not being granted tenure.
A number of speakers criticized the practice of senatorial courtesy, whereby a senator representing the area where a court is located can unilaterally block a judicial nominee from being confirmed. The practice was characterized as out of control, and many speakers suggested it be abolished.
Other suggested changes included:
- creating a presumption of reappointment for judges,
- eliminating or increasing the mandatory retirement age,
- devoting more attention to educating the public about the court system,
- crafting criteria for formally evaluating judges,
- providing longer public notice periods when the senate is going to hold a hearing on a judicial nominee,
- amending the state constitution to require the entire senate to hold a vote on all judicial nominees within a certain amount of time,
- altering the municipal court system so that judges, whose rulings are the second largest source of revenue in many municipalities, are shielded from the municipality’s influence,
- allowing judges to comment on cases to the press or appointing people within the judicial branch to make such comments, and
- increasing the state and local bar association’s engagement with the political branches.
Only one individual who testified suggested that the courts should be held more accountable for their decisions. He pointed out that most people who interact with the judicial system, including himself, do not have a positive impression of the courts and would disfavor additional power being granted to the courts by the other branches.
Throughout the hearing, members of the Task Force remained largely silent, except to ask for more suggested changes and less commentary on the audience’s general displeasure with the current state of affairs.
The Task Force has scheduled three more public hearings:
- May 15: NJSBA Annual Meeting in Atlantic City, 1 p.m.
- June 3: Seton Hall School of Law, Newark, 4 p.m.
- June 17: Rutgers School of Law, Camden, 4 p.m.
News Coverage of the Event:
The independence of New Jersey judges is under attack by Gov. Chris Christie and lawmakers, retired judges and lawyers told a state bar association task force Tuesday.
Michael Phillis | The Record
New Jersey’s judicial branch is under attack and in need of reform and protection, leaders in the state’s legal community told a task force studying the court system’s independence Tuesday.
Martin Bricketto | Law 360
A New Jersey task force crafting recommendations to protect judicial independence heard calls on Tuesday to guarantee the reappointment of judges unless they are unfit for the job, raise the mandatory retirement age for judges and end state senators’ ability to indefinitely hold up nominees.