TRENTON – On their first day back from summer recess in the Statehouse today, members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee mulled the idea of extending the mandatory retirement age for Supreme and Superior Court judges in New Jersey.
The state’s constitution currently requires judges to retire at 70. But that stricture was adopted in 1948, when the average life expectancy was far lower than it is now, committee Chairman John McKeon (D-27) argued.
Today, people are living decades longer, which means judge are being forced to retire well before they need to, wasting valuable skills and expertise, he said.
“With a judge I always think of judges of having wisdom, and wisdom comes with experience and age,” McKeon said. “And truth be told at age 70, we’re taking some of the most fertile and vital jurists and forcing them into retirement at an arbitrary and capricious age set many decades ago.”
The proposal to extend retirment ages for judges has taken an increasingly prominent role in discussions about New Jersey’s judicial system in recent months, as court systems across the state continue to face challenges in dealing with mounting vacancies. State appointments have failed to keep up with demand in places like Essex and Union County due in part to political conflicts, but also because of natural turn over, experts say. New Jersey courts currently face at total of 53 vacancies, according to testimony by Deirdre Naughton, director of the Administrative Offices of the Courts.
Even after the break in the long stalemate between the legislature and the governor’s office over judicial nominations in Essex County last month, bringing the number of vacancies statewide down to 43, she said a “significant number” of retirements after Sept. 1st has brought that number back up to 53. As a result, the state has been forced to continue to recall retired judges from neighboring counties.
Many of those recall judges, moreover, are already over the age of 70. As of August 26, the courts had 77 recall judges, with 57 over 70 and 20 between the ages 62 and 69.
But statewide, 52 percent of judges are retiring at 65 or younger, she added.
Proponents of extending the retirement age pointed to those vacancies, which have clogged the courts with delayed cases and force sitting judges to take on “staggering case loads,” as reason to move faster on the issue. Republican lawmakers are pushing to put a constitutional amendment on Novembers ballot to raise the retirement age to 75.
Paris Eliades, president of the NJ Bar Association, called the shortage a “crisis that is facing our judiciary to the detriment of our residents.”
“Our judges are stretched beyond reason. Our judges are struggling to meet the justifiably needs of the citizens of this state who should and do look to the judicial system of this state to settle our disputes in a matter contemplated by the constitution. The effects of this crisis have had a real impact on our state.” Eliades said.
But at least one member of the committee maintained that the issue is just one of many problems facing the state’s judicial system, and any attempt to extend the retirement age should come with other comprehensive reforms. For example, there’s no constitutional authority for recalling judges, said Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-25).
Supreme Court justices also operate differently than those in the lower courts, he added, even though legislation being considered doesn’t distinguish between the two.
“Over the years it’s become apparent that some justices misunderstand their roles,” he said of state Supreme Court justices. “That’s not a problem on the lower courts but on the higher courts it is. The idea of being stuck with someone forever, in effect, after they’ve snuck through the tenure process is problematic.”
McKeon said he expects the committee to move on some of the proposals laid out today by the end of the month.