NEWARK – The ACLU of New Jersey, Salvation and Social Justice, and League of Women Voters of New Jersey, today sent a letter, signed by dozens of advocacy groups from across the state, to Senate President Nicholas Scutari to express extreme concern about a proposed constitutional amendment that would fundamentally alter the functioning of New Jersey’s judiciary and transfer vast power over the courts to the political branches of government. The groups are calling on lawmakers to ensure any process to consider changing the current system for judicial appointments is transparent and includes public input. 

“New Jersey’s method for selecting judges has created a judicial system that is admired nationwide for its quality and independence, still reasonable people can disagree about the best way to select appellate judges. Such a dramatic change in our constitutional structure implicates significant questions about diversity, vacancies, competence, and politicization. The Senate should not move forward with a proposed amendment until there has been an open, robust discussion about the critical questions implicated by such a radical change to the foundations of our state’s checks and balances,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo

Under the current system, the Chief Justice has the constitutional authority to assign judges of the Superior Court to any court in the state. This means the Chief Justice may make geographic assignments, determine whether a judge sits in family, criminal or civil court, and, critically, decide which trial judges should be assigned to the Appellate Division. The proposed constitutional amendment would strip the Chief Justice of that assignment power and allow the Governor to name people directly, subject to Senate confirmation, to a “Court of Appeals” that would have the same powers as the Appellate Division. 

“New Jersey has the worst racial disparities in the rates of sentencing and incarceration of Black and white residents in the nation, and so I am deeply concerned about the proposed changes to the appellate judge selection process. The proposed changes have the potential to jeopardize the independence and integrity of the judiciary and undermine the trust and confidence of the public in the administration of justice. The current system ensures that qualified and impartial judges are elevated to the appellate courts, without political interference or favoritism. I urge the legislature to reconsider this plan and preserve the merit-based selection process that has served our state well for decades,” said Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Salvation and Social Justice, Pastor of Greater Mount Zion AME Church in Trenton

For seven of the last 11 years – across multiple gubernatorial administrations – the average number of judicial vacancies has amounted to 50 or more. This has had a catastrophic effect on the provision of justice. The Appellate Division has been largely insulated from this problem as the Chief Justice has diligently tended to the composition of the appellate bench, while the trial courts, which can be filled only by political actors, have suffered. As such, the Appellate Division has gender parity and political balance. There are more people of color serving on that court now than ever before. But as written, the constitutional amendment fails to account for the need for diversity in the Appellate Division and would put total power over its judicial staffing into the same hands that have long mismanaged the process of filling the lower courts.  

"The League of Women Voters of New Jersey is deeply troubled by the pace of this proposed amendment," said Jesse Burns, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. "This change could have significant impacts on our judicial system and deserves more thorough discussion and debate." 

In New Jersey, trial and appellate judges serve for seven years and then must be again appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. This allows New Jersey judges to focus on making decisions that are correct, rather than those that are popular. If the proposed constitutional amendment were to pass, it would politicize court decisions as judges seeking to be appointed to the appellate court would have to gain approval from the Governor and the entire Senate.