Our most important and most complicated legal disputes and many of our most serious criminal matters are decided in federal court. But federal district courts around the country are extremely shorthanded, suffering from a gridlock of partisan stubbornness for years, leaving an unprecedented and unmanageable number of judicial vacancies. This is especially true here in the District of New Jersey.

Of the 17 allotted seats for district judges in the District of New Jersey, six of them – over 35% – are vacant. That makes the federal court in New Jersey the third-worst staffed district in the nation – out of 94 districts we are in 92nd place. Imagine a baseball team missing more than a third of its players. Or your favorite band being short almost half of its members. Even an understaffed fast-food restaurant will leave you stalled at the drive-through.

The work of our federal court is not a pastime, a leisure activity or a convenience. It is a mission-critical undertaking, and not only for those who appear in court. Companies and their employees depend on the efficient resolution of their disputes. Criminal defendants, their families and communities waiting for justice to be done. Lives and livelihoods literally hang in the balance. 

To make matters worse, the District of New Jersey is arguably the busiest district court in the country. In the year leading up to Sept. 30, 2019, more cases were filed in the District of New Jersey than any other district in the country, by a long shot. To illustrate this point: during that year, each district judge across the country received 609 new cases on average, while each district judge in the District of New Jersey received 1,537 new cases on average – almost 1,000 cases more than the average district judge. Add to the mix the fact that New Jersey’s federal courts handle more complex cases than the typical federal court, like complicated patent cases tied to New Jersey’s active pharmaceutical industry. 

It is impossible for the judges to keep up. These magnificent public servants – our federal district judges and magistrate judges – lawyers who chose service over material wealth, have been working triple time. We, the lawyers, see it – judges working late into the night, on the weekends and on holidays, trying to make sure that justice is dispensed fairly and as timely as it can be, all while living and working in a newly designed remote environment. Even with the help of additional “senior” judges who continue to hear cases, it is inescapable that the administration of justice is being impeded.

Knowing the importance of this court and how overburdened its judges are, you might ask why this shortage has been allowed to persist. Why haven’t these judicial vacancies been filled? Why hasn’t the 17-seat allotment been increased to 22, as recommended by the Judicial Conference of the United States, the national policy-making body for the federal courts? 

Perhaps, surprisingly, there are still plenty of lawyers lining up to serve as federal judges so that is not the reason. Federal judges are nominated by the president and then must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Over the past four years, the legislative and executive branches have refused to collaborate in order to find consensus on any judicial candidates for appointment. Not a single district court judge in the District of New Jersey – not one – has been appointed during this time. 

The good news is that this election should end the stalemate. Our Democratic president-elect and our two Democratic senators from New Jersey should be well-positioned to find middle ground on this issue. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker are respectfully implored to work with the Biden administration and the Senate to resolve this for all of our benefit. We need them to collaborate with a sense of urgency and without political distraction to fill these vacancies and fix our federal court.

Reprinted with permission from the November 15, 2020, issue of NJ.com. © 2020 Advance Local Media LLC. All Rights Reserved. 

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