Unfilled vacancies on the bench, combined with a surge in case filings, have caused a massive case backlog for the U.S. District Court in New Jersey, according to a report published by the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

New Jersey's federal case backlog, the report finds, has grown by 230% since 2016 and now stands at almost 39,000 cases. The backlog is bigger than both Pennsylvania's and New York's.

"Justice delayed means that thousands of parties to civil and criminal cases in New Jersey are left hanging with little hope of a speedy trial," said John Froonjian, executive director of the Hughes Center. "The judicial vacancies and backlogs seriously affect the administration of justice, and it is hurting New Jersey more than other nearby states."

An analysis of federal court data — performed by Stockton graduate Daniel Tidcombe, who served as the Center's research intern in spring 2020 — showed six of 17 District Court judgeships in New Jersey are vacant. That's up from only two vacancies in 2018.

A few judges have stayed on the bench past retirement age to help handle cases, the report said. As part of his research, Tidcombe interviewed Joseph Rodriguez, a District Court judge in Camden County, who could have retired years ago but is still serving at age 89.

Rodriguez said he still handles a full caseload, and he refuses to cut corners in order to reduce backlog numbers.

"There are nights where you go to bed and you can't sleep because you're worried about a decision you have to make because you're affecting people's lives." Rodriguez told Tidcombe.

At the same time, the number of cases filed in New Jersey District Court skyrocketed. Federal and civil case filings went from about 11,300 in 2016 to more than 27,000 in 2019, the report states.

Cases related to the pharmaceutical industry have been on the rise. The district court also handles cases touching on constitutional issues, acts of Congress and maritime law. Multi-district cases can combine hundreds of individual cases.

The research project was prompted by comments made by former White House Counsel Don McGahn while speaking at a Jan. 23 Hughes Center event. According to the report, McGahn said vacancies and their resulting backlogs exist because home-state senators are able to hold up judicial appointments by not signing off on them.

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