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As judicial vacancies climb, Senate panel OKs four nominees to the bench


As judicial vacancies climb, Senate panel OKs four nominees to the bench

Feb 23, 2023 | 2:31 pm ET
By Dana DiFilippo
As judicial vacancies climb, Senate panel OKs four nominees to the bench
Sen. Brian Stack, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, said a thorough vetting process and COVID-related delays are fueling the state’s judicial vacancy crisis. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

A state Senate panel advanced four new judicial nominees Thursday, slightly shrinking the statewide number of judicial vacancies that created a crippling court backlog and drove officials earlier this month to suspend civil and divorce cases in six counties.

The four are expected to be approved by the full Senate Monday.

Sen. Brian Stack chairs the Senate’s judiciary committee, which is tasked with vetting and advancing judicial nominees. Thursday, he called the persistent vacancies “disappointing” and told the New Jersey Monitor he stands ready to schedule additional committee meetings to advance more judges.

But he hasn’t scheduled any extra meetings and couldn’t pinpoint specifically where in the judicial pipeline the problem is.

“It’s the vetting process, that takes a little bit longer. I think they try to be as thorough as possible, both the governor’s office and the committee,” Stack said. “I think COVID over the years — I’m not using COVID as an excuse — but I think it is also tied in. But look, I think we got to get these filled, and we got to get them filled this year, no doubt about it.”

Jeralyn Lawrence, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, didn’t want to hear it.

“The fact that there are only four nominations on the calendar today when there are 24 ready to go is pathetic,” Lawrence said in an email. “Why are there not 24 nominations on the calendar today? That failure is on the Senate.”

The courts now have 70 vacancies, which are barely lower than the record-high 75 empty seats that drove Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner last May to demand the governor and Legislature act faster to fill the bench.

Earlier this month, Rabner repeated that demand, saying court staff is overwhelmed and understaffed. He announced divorce and civil trials would be suspended starting this week in six counties where nine of the 28 judicial seats are empty. None of the four nominees advanced Thursday are in those vicinages.

As judicial vacancies climb, Senate panel OKs four nominees to the bench
Attorney Chanel Hudson of Roselle testifies before the Senate judiciary committee on Feb. 23, 2023. The panel approved her nomination to the state Superior Court. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Lawrence chided Gov. Phil Murphy for not nominating enough judges. Murphy and the Senate should remain in Trenton until they fill all vacancies, she said.

“People are being denied access to the court — a court that their tax money pays for,” Lawrence said. “There are plenty of qualified candidates. Get them on the bench.”

Murphy spokeswoman Natalie Hamilton said the governor was “pleased” to see the committee advance four of his nominees Thursday.

“The governor continues to urge the Senate to advance and confirm the remaining 19 Superior Court nominations he put forth over the last year,” Hamilton said. “He looks forward to nominating more individuals in the next month and to working with the Legislature to identify new, diverse, and highly qualified candidates.”

The panel approved the nominations of:

  • John G. Ducey III of Brick. Ducey has been Brick Township’s mayor since 2014 and a councilman for the prior two years. He’s a past president of the Ocean County Bar Association and has served on several state attorney ethics committees.
  • Gavin I. Handwerker of Westfield. Handwerker is an attorney specializing in commercial litigation and municipal court practice who works at state Sen. Jon Bramnick’s law firm and as a public defender in Scotch Plains Township.
  • Chanel J. Hudson of Roselle. Hudson is an attorney specializing in civil and criminal litigation at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden. She also worked at the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender for 12 years.
  • Susanne Lavelle of Union. Lavelle is a family and personal injury attorney who was also board attorney for public schools in Union, where Stack is mayor.

The committee also reappointed eight Superior Court judges Thursday, including Judge L. Grace Spencer, who previously represented Essex County in the New Jersey Assembly from 2008 to 2016.