Proposal to raise mandatory retirement age for N.J. judges panned by bar association

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A row of judges are seated at a table.

File photo: Justices on New Jersey Supreme Court

To ease a historic shortage of judges in New Jersey, a New Jersey state senator is proposing to raise the mandatory retirement age from 70 to 75.

State Sen. Shirley Turner proposed the bill in December. She said “life expectancy has changed so much” since 1947, when the state constitution was written.

“It’s like the 70 now is like the old 60,” Turner said, pointing out that people are living longer amid advances in health care. She adds that the current mandatory age is “not realistic.”

“If we believe that judges should leave the bench at age 70, then why are they bringing them back on recall,” said Turner. “They can remain on recall until the age of 80, which makes no sense at all.”

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When New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner gave remarks to the State Bar Association Conference last May, he said there were 75 open seats on the trial court bench. There has also been a Supreme Court vacancy for nearly six months. Jeralyn Lawrence, bar association president, said that Rabner’s “plea for help” has “largely been ignored.”

Lawrence doesn’t think Turner’s proposal will address the vacancies and that “it’ll have the opposite effect of what’s intended.”

“I think judges will leave the bench if the legislature thinks that they can legislate their way out of this by requiring judges to work five years longer, instead of the legislature following their constitutional mandate in working with the governor to appoint and confirm judges,” she said.

Members have been expressing their frustration to Lawrence about cases not being heard due to no judge being available. Lawrence said “real people are being harmed everyday;” families, children, abuse victims, people who were injured and have a claim, and people who are in jail longer than they should. She adds that she woke up Friday morning to a Facebook message from someone complaining about not being able to access the judiciary.

“Every single day people are being harmed because they cannot have their matters heard in court,” said Lawrence. “My colleagues are screaming about it every single day.”

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Raising the age is not that simple. Because it deals with the state constitution, it requires an amendment that would have to pass the Legislature through two consecutive sessions, unless both chambers pass the resolution with a supermajority.

Neither Turner’s bill nor the concurrent resolution have received a hearing yet.

Because of the process to get the proposed amendment passed, Rutgers Law School Professor Ron Chen said the mandatory retirement age of 70 will still be in effect “for the foreseeable future.” Still, the proposal needs to get past the Legislature, which he adds is a “murky political question.”

“It’s unclear…whether there is enough support for it in the Legislature to get that supermajority so they could send it to a public referendum…this year or even next year,” he said.

Chen adds that while the Supreme Court has a temporary fix, the Superior Court has been feeling the brunt of the judge shortages. It’s where everyday cases are handled. He said the vacancies there are “alarming.”

Turner echoed that point. “We have litigants who are being denied their day in court for an extended period of time, which is wrong because justice delayed is justice denied,” she said.

Lawrence said that the Senate and the governor are the only two entities that can put judges on the bench, since judges are not elected in New Jersey. She suggests lawmakers “reserve the nicest conference room at the statehouse in Trenton” and stay until all of the vacancies are filled.

“They need to communicate. They need to compromise. And they need to collaborate, that’s what they need to do together,” she said.

Turner said the Legislature and the governor are not completely to blame. She said the COVID pandemic fueled the shortages as judges reached retirement age while the state government was shut down.

“It’s hard to try to process the judges at a time when we’re not open for business, so to speak,” she said.

Turner’s bill would also raise the mandatory retirement age of judges in the Division of Workers’ Compensation and permanent administrative law judges to 75, as well as Tax Court judges. It would have immediate effect for workers compensation judges and administrative law judges, while Tax Court judges would have to wait for voter approval.

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