No replacement in sight for longtime vacancy on New Jersey’s top court

The bench of NJ Supreme Court Justices during a session of the New Jersey Supreme Court on January 30, 2023. Left to right Justice Douglas M. Fasciale, Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis, Justice Anne M. Patterson, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, Justice Lee A. Solomon and Justice Rachel Wainer Apter.

by Nikita Biryukov, New Jersey Monitor

The New Jersey Supreme Court seat formerly held by now-retired Justice Barry Albin remains vacant nearly 10 months after his departure, and Gov. Phil Murphy declined to say when he intends to nominate a successor.

The lack of a permanent replacement for Albin, who retired as the law requires when he turned 70 on July 7, has impacted the high court less than the previous retirements of Justices Jaynee LaVecchia and Faustino Fernandez-Vina, whose vacancies created quorum concerns. But the judge shuffling involved in replacing Albin on a temporary basis has deprived the state’s Superior Court of a sorely needed judge.

Murphy has repeatedly declined to name a successor for Albin or provide a timeline for the nomination.

“This is a process we take very seriously,” Murphy said after an unrelated press conference Friday in Pitman. “God willing, we’ll be getting there sooner or later.”

None of the Supreme Court’s seven seats are empty. Senior Appellate Division Judge Jack Sabatino has sat as an interim member since Chief Justice Stuart Rabner elevated him and two others in August to fill what were then three vacancies. Justices Douglas Fasciale and Justice Rachel Wainer Apter were confirmed to the Supreme Court a little over six months ago to fill two of those vacancies, but there have been few clues since then on who might join them permanently. 

In elevating Sabatino to the high court, Rabner created a vacancy in the Appellate Division that was itself filled by the elevation of a Superior Court judge.

The loss of a single member of the Superior Court might not be significant were it not for broad vacancies within the judiciary that drove the court in February to entirely suspend civil and divorce trials in six New Jersey counties.

Judge Glenn Grant, the administrative director of the courts, earlier this month warned that these types of trials could be suspended elsewhere in the state if more judges are not appointed soon. That task lies with Murphy, who nominates judges, and the Senate, whose members must confirm nominees.

There are 58 vacancies on the Superior Court bench. There were 75 vacancies last May when Rabner delivered a dire address urging Murphy and lawmakers to staff up the courts.

Two other judges will retire by May 1, said a judiciary spokesperson who declined to comment on the Supreme Court vacancy.

At least 22 judges will resign between now and the end of the year. Twenty new Superior Court judges await confirmation, though some of those nominations have been stalled for more than a year.

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