Senators from each state often recommend candidates to the president for the lifetime appointments, and it is unclear precisely why no one was nominated in New Jersey. Politics were at least partly to blame for the standstill in a state with two Democratic senators, including one, Cory Booker, who was vying to run for president against Mr. Trump, making compromise difficult.
Still, the president did make appointments in other states with two Democratic senators, including New York, Illinois and California, leaving New Jersey’s bench mystified by the prolonged impasse. “For whatever reason he just basically ignored New Jersey,” Carl Tobias, a federal court scholar who teaches at the University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia, said of Mr. Trump.
“It’s a bad situation and it’s been bad for a long time,” Professor Tobias added. “And you compound it with a year of Covid, and it’s a worst-case scenario.”
Then tragedy came in July. The 20-year-old son of Judge Esther Salas was shot to death in the family’s New Jersey home by a misogynistic lawyer who had written about being angered by case delays, sending shock waves through the already overburdened court. Judge Salas, whose husband was also seriously injured in the shooting, only returned to work on March 2.
“When eventually we can go back to trying cases, the backlog is going to be enormous,” said Lawrence S. Lustberg, a defense and civil rights lawyer and a past president of the state’s federal bar association. “It’s good old-fashioned ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’”
While subject to pandemic-related delays, criminal cases in New Jersey are less backed up than civil ones. They account for a smaller portion of the docket and are governed by speedy trial rules that require timely action, particularly when a defendant is imprisoned.
“There hasn’t been any impingement of justice,” said Craig Carpenito, who was the state’s top federal prosector until January, when he returned to private practice. “But how long can they really survive this way?”