Politics, pandemic cause a major backlog in Passaic County's courts – NorthJersey.com

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PASSAIC COUNTY — A growing backlog of court cases fueled by the pandemic and politics is causing concern in Passaic County.
In the first week of January, county officials reported a backlog of 764 criminal cases. Not just pending, these cases are considered overdue based on the court schedule.
“That’s a 67% increase since December of 2020,” said Ernest Caposela, assignment judge for the county vicinage. “A lot of these folks are sitting in jail waiting for trials.”
Not limited to criminal trials, the backlog of civil and general equity cases have also jumped by nearly a third amid the pandemic. Caposela said the most shocking numbers lie with backlogged cases that involve landlords and tenants. Those have surpassed 5,150 and are increasing, he added.
Statewide, the backlog of cases is piling up. A roughly 420% increase since March 2020 saw the total trial court backlog in New Jersey top 97,000 in September 2021. A slight dip highlighted the most recent release of data from November 2021, when state officials reported 94,963 backlogged cases. 
On the municipal level, the numbers are larger still. More than 1.6 million cases, including more than 1 million traffic cases, were pending as of November 2021, records show. Hudson County led the way with 449,553 cases. Passaic County had roughly 123,000. Bergen County had about 152,000; about 10 times as many as Morris County and 36 times as many as Sussex County.
COVID-19 variants have only hindered attempts to chip away at the backlogs. Distancing and quarantining requirements are limiting the scheduling and hindering the execution of in-person trials. Earlier in January, state judiciary officials announced a moratorium on calling new jurors into court until Jan. 17. In-person trials are ongoing but have been complicated by COVID-19 cases among jurors, lawyers and witnesses. Domestic violence cases are done on site but litigants are mainly kept in isolation due to restraining orders, Caposela said. That alleviates some of the pandemic-related concerns, he added.
Settlements have also helped, as the courts continue to push forward with virtual hearings. Court officials in Passaic County have executed about 140,000 virtual court events during the pandemic on the county and municipal levels, Caposela said.
Still, court vacancies have hindered efforts to play catchup. Passaic county started 2022 with five long-standing judicial vacancies, which Caposela said are compounding the backlog by limiting the court’s ability to try cases.
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“It’s not just the number of vacancies. It’s the duration,” he said. “We’ve lost the productivity of one judge for 11.5 years …That’s tens of thousands of cases that we haven’t been able to process.”
Passaic County is not alone. Essex, Bergen, Hudson, Mercer, Union and Middlesex also had at least five vacancies in their courts to start the new year. In December, Gov. Phil Murphy made seven nominations to the court. Five were for Essex County, one for Burlington County and one for Warren County. 
Caposela said he is hoping for some movement in his court relatively soon.
“We’re really very anxious to get back to what we call normal,” Caposela said. “We have our work really cut out for us.”
David Zimmer is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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