By Jane Fritsch

New Jersey's federal courts, among the busiest in the nation, are operating under a "judicial emergency," as declared by the body that sets standards for caseloads, because of vacant judgeships that have gone unfilled for months.

Four of the state's 17 federal judges have retired or moved to part-time status since the beginning of the year, but the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, under Republican control, has taken no action on three pending nominations backed by New Jersey's Democratic senators.

"We're at the mercy of the Senate," Jerome B. Simandle, New Jersey's chief federal judge, said in an interview.

"The key thing is that the scarcest resource is the judge," he said. The remaining 13 judges and their staffs _ based in Camden, Newark and Trenton _ work long hours to keep up with a significant rise in the number of cases the past two decades, he said. "With 17, we're barely keeping our heads above water."

In the early 2000s, Simandle said, five judgeships were vacant at the same time, and the effect was "crippling."

The declaration by the Judicial Conference of the United States that the current situation in New Jersey qualifies as a "judicial emergency" means that each judge is being asked to handle too many cases.

Awaiting confirmation are Bergen County Superior Court Judge Brian R. Martinotti, who was nominated by President Barack Obama on June 11; John Michael Vazquez, a former state and federal prosecutor now working as a defense attorney, who was nominated on March 26; and Julien Xavier Neals, Bergen County counsel, who was nominated on Feb. 26.

The vacancies have become a partisan flash point in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., called the vacancies "concerning," and said any "undue delay" in their confirmation is "unacceptable."

Booker's fellow New Jersey Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez called the situation "outrageous," and said it "affects everyday people in terms of getting their day in court." Republicans, he said, "are slow-walking these nominees and obstructing the ability for justice to be administered. That's unacceptable."

Menendez, who has been indicted on federal corruption charges, failed in an attempt last month to have his trial moved from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. His case is tentatively set for trial in October before U.S. District Judge William H. Walls in Newark.

Senate Republicans reject the criticism, saying that Obama's nominees are being considered at the same pace as nominees under the presidency of George W. Bush.

"The bottom line is the Senate Judiciary Committee is treating the president's nominees extremely fairly, and there shouldn't be any complaining about following the same standard we did in 2007," Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement last week.

Whatever its cause, the logjam in the federal courts adds to the frustrations of New Jersey residents seeking legal relief. Until recently, attempts to fill vacancies on the bench within the state's own system of courts were stymied as Governor Christie battled with Democratic legislators over the fate of nominees.

The Judicial Conference, which sets policy for the federal courts, declares a "judicial emergency" in a district where each judge has more than 600 "weighted" cases pending. In New Jersey, the number has reached 659.

The conference uses a formula that rates cases by their complexity. For example, a case involving a defaulted student loan is counted as 0.031, but a complex patent case is counted as 1.9.

Across the country, a total of 27 vacant federal judgeships _ including the four in New Jersey _ have been classified as "judicial emergencies." The New Jersey district is among the 10 busiest of the 94 districts in the country, Judge Simandle said. It is comparable with the Southern District of New York, and the districts in Chicago and Los Angeles, he said.

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