By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
Some of the most prominent members of the Senate, the Senate president and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court all emerged from the governor’s private office to watch him sign a bill creating 20 new judgeships.
The impetus for the move is the new bail reform law that took effect Jan. 1.
“I’ve just signed Senate Bill 2850 to create 20 new judicial posts and to appropriate an additional $9.3 million from the general fund in the new fiscal year to support criminal justice reforms taking effect this month under the legislation I signed in 2014 and a constitutional amendment approved by New Jersey voters passed in November of 2014,” Gov. Chris Christie said.
Under the new system, bail is based no longer on a defendant’s ability to pay but on his risk of flight and danger to society.
It’s a major change and there was some concern within the judiciary about the added strain it might put on the court system.
“I’m hoping that these additional judgeships that I think are well overdue are not going to be just solely used to deal with bail reform efforts, but they’re going to be used in a broader area of the law. Not only just in bail reform, but family court matters where there’s always a manpower shortage, as well as in the civil division where they can write some more opinions and get more to the meat and potatoes of what the law should be,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari.
The health of the judiciary right now?
“It’s in great shape,” Scutari said.
Simultaneously with the bill signing, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved 12 more recent judicial appointments.
“To be a Superior Court judge in New Jersey has been a goal of mine for a number of years. I’ve been fortunate enough to practice law for over 30 years,” said John O’Dwyer, who was approved by the Judiciary Committee.
“John is giving up a lucrative law practice, and so therefore we thank just not him but his family for those considerations to give back to public service. He’s exactly what we’re looking for in a Superior Court judge,” Scutari said.
Judicial vacancies plagued the system just a few year ago — a 40 percent vacancy rate in Essex County, 46 percent in Mercer.
Now with today’s additional 12 in committee and 20 from the bill signing, the number of Superior Court trial and appellate judges rises from from 451 to 483, the highest it’s ever been.
Christie called that a solid complement.
“And by solid complement I also mean not only numbers, but also the quality of the people we put on the bench. And this is a conversation that Sen. Scutari and I have been having a lot of lately,” Christie said.
Senate President Steve Sweeney sponsored the bill to help make bail reform work.
“This can’t fail. You know there’s a lot of people that want this to fail. You saw not too long ago some possible legislation to bring back cash bail. There is a business of poverty, and preying on the poor shouldn’t be accepted by government. And working together we were able to do something. I can’t tell you how many time I spoke to the governor and said we have to get these judges, we have to get these additional judges,” said Sweeney.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner added his approval.
“Not only is there a need to have a lot of judges on the books, but to have vacancies filled rapidly enough so that we can have a full a complement as possible. And that doesn’t happen without sustained activity by the governor, by his chief council over there in the corner, Tom Scrivo, and his people, by the entire Senate led by the Senate president and the Senate Judiciary Committee which has been quite busy under the leadership of Sen. Scutari moving the renominations and the new nominations through. I’m so grateful for the efforts that bring us to the historic low,” Rabner said.
The bill also appropriates $9.3 million to pay for the additional judgeships.