NEWARK — Certain civil trials that have been on hold for several months in Essex County due to a shortage of judges will resume Monday.
However, the order does not apply to some matrimonial court trials still waiting to be heard in family court. Those cases, which include divorce proceedings, will remain suspended for now but could resume later this month.
County Assignment Judge Patricia Costello had suspended “complex” civil trials — such as product liability cases — and certain matrimonial trials in early December. That was due to the judge shortage caused by an ongoing 16-month political standoff between Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex.
Citing reservations about Christie’s approach to education reform, Rice has used senatorial courtesy to block the permanent appointment of acting state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. Meanwhile, Christie has refused to act on any of the proposed Essex judicial nominees.
The political rift has prevented at least six prospective judicial nominees from taking the bench in Essex, where there are 11 judicial vacancies among the county’s 44 allotted positions.
Even though no full-time judges have been added since December, officials say the civil trials can resume because two retired judges have been recalled to service and the term of a third retired judge has been extended. Costello also cancelled mock trials and speaking engagements where judges visit schools, while six law clerks were added to handle the mounting number of legal motions.
Criminal trials and family court cases involving domestic violence, parental rights or juvenile cases were never affected by Costello’s directive. But overall, the civil and matrimonial trials that were suspended account for about 15 percent of the court docket.
“We’re trying to be creative and inventive from every angle,” Costello told The Star-Ledger about her attempt to spread the workload to restart trials. “The strain is starting to show, but our necks are above water. Everybody’s head is down working, working, working.”
Costello received permission in January to hire nine municipal court judges to hear temporary restraining order requests, hoping to decrease the added wait time due to bench vacancies. Extensions for those judges are evaluated every two months.
Costello also sought assistance from the Essex County Bar Association, which has organized an upcoming two-day event in which 25 attorneys will volunteer as mediators in a bid to resolve roughly 600 child support and visitation cases.