Atlantic County’s shortage of Superior Court judges can be trying. Or not so trying, as the case may be.
With just three of the five full-time benches filled in one of the state’s busiest criminal courts, trials will be at a minimum.
“Cases that are on the trial list are being put off until the first of the year so that the courts can cope with the cases coming in every week,” Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain said. “So that’s going to slow things down tremendously.”
Judges in the county already were handling close to twice the average throughout the state, said defense attorney Joseph Levin, president of the Atlantic County Bar Association.
“Although the judges on the criminal court bench are extremely skilled, that is a very heavy caseload,” Levin said.
Daily lists, motions, sentencings and parole violations fill up the docket, leaving little time for trials, said Michael Donio, whose retirement created one of those vacancies.
“That doesn’t leave them any time to try cases,” he said.
Backup in criminal court doesn’t just cause a burden on the system, it also affects people more than in any other courts, said Donio, who headed the Criminal Division for Atlantic and Cape May counties.
“Obviously, the shortages affect criminal more than the other divisions because you’re talking about people’s liberty. You’re talking about victims of crime,” Donio said.
Atlantic County lost three of its five criminal court judges to retirement over the summer. While the retirements were planned, there still have been no formal nominations from Gov. Chris Christie.
Restructuring by Assignment Judge Julio Mendez brought the number in the Criminal Division to four. But that move was dealt an emotional blow earlier this month with the death of Superior Court Judge Allen Littlefield — who had transferred from civil to criminal court two months ago.
“The wheels are turning,” promised Trial Court Administrator Howard Berchtold, who could not give details on what movement is going on with the state.
Superior Court Judge Bernard DeLury now heads the Criminal Division. He is joined by Judge Patricia Wild, who was moved from Cape May’s criminal court, and Judge Michael Blee.
Blee had been doing some part-time work finishing up his former spot in Family Court. But with the latest shortage, he is now full time in criminal.
Retired Superior Court Judge Michael Connor continues to oversee drug court twice a week on recall, which limits a judge’s time on the bench. There is the option to add a day to his schedule if needed, which could happen, Berchtold said.
Levin said he believes the Criminal Division in Atlantic County will try to prioritize cases so defendants who are jailed don’t have unnecessary delays in getting their cases tried.
“On the other hand, defendants that are not incarcerated might see their trials postponed until more resources become available,” he said. “Everyone involved in the criminal justice system is working very hard to insure that justice is done and that each defendant’s constitutional rights are protected.”
That will become even more important — and perhaps cumbersome — in the new year, when bail reform and changes to the Speedy Trial Act take effect, McClain warned.
“The system is not designed for efficiency in the first place,” he said. “When you suffer from a lack of resources, this slows down the process even more.”