NJ Law Journal Bureau Chief: There’s a Political Component in Nominating Judges

New Jersey’s chronically clogged court calendars have become far worse in the last year because there aren’t enough judges. Eight nominees for benches in Essex County have been approved and that brings the number of judicial vacancies there down to 14. In Bergen County, a quarter of judicial jobs are empty. In all there are 44 vacancies on the state’s trial bench and another 12 looming. The State Bar Association says its judges are stretched beyond reason. New Jersey Law Journal Bureau Chief Zack Needles told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams that there is a political component in nominating judges.

When asked why filling vacancies in some counties is more difficult than others, Needles said it comes down to the process. He said that in Essex, the process has been four years in the making and that has a lot to do with Gov. Chris Christie and the legislators having to work out their differences and negotiate. He said on June 30 when there were eight nominees ready for Essex County and then they got pulled at the last minute, it was a shock for everybody because typically the packages are put together ahead of time.

Needles said that there is a political component to nominations and those putting forth the nominees try to choose individuals who they believe will get confirmed. He said typically when there are confirmation hearings, a package like the eight judicial nominees in Essex is supposed to be a forgone conclusion — a formality — but obviously that went wrong in June.

The New Jersey Law Journal surveyed the state’s top firms, where the women and members of minority groups are making headway as partners. Needles said what they found was that women fared pretty well this year. He said that female partners were a little over a 2 percent jump from last year. He said that data from 1985 shows 4 percent of the partners at law firms were women in New Jersey and now the state is up to 19.4 percent. He said that women have made progress but on the minority side it has not been as good. He said that data from 1990 shows minorities made up 1 percent and now it is up to 4.5 percent. He said there has been a pretty significant increase but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

Needles said that one major barrier is that hiring has slowed. He said that corporations and the clients that firms are using are putting a lot of pressure on them to have a more diverse group of lawyers.

When asked why who you are affects the way the law is practiced, Needles said that groups want to have different perspectives. He said that he thinks it is moving toward the goal of having a more diverse group of employees because everyone deserves a fair shot and there are great attorneys of all races and ethnicities. He said that he thinks companies are trying to level the playing field for everybody but the barrier is that hiring has slowed because of the economy. He said every year there are not as many lawyers being hired to the firms and that is going to slow progress. He said that the firms that are really successful have institutionalized programs designed to target diverse job applicants.