History of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey

History of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey

Our District was one of the original 13 judicial districts established by the Judiciary Act of 1789.  The District of New Jersey first convened on December 22, 1789 and is the second oldest District Court (and oldest undivided District Court) in the United States.  The first judge of the District of New Jersey was David Brearley.  From 1789 through 1905, only one judge was assigned to our District at any given time.  That judge sat only six times each year.  In the decade of the 1860s, 49 attorneys were admitted to practice in the District.   Initially, court was held in New Brunswick and Burlington, in county courthouses or local taverns. By the mid-1800s, those venues were discontinued and court was held only in Trenton.  Sessions of the District Court were authorized in Newark and Camden in 1911 and 1926, respectively. 

By the 1950s, there were seven District Court judges in our District.  At that time, there was minimal interaction among the judges in Newark, Trenton and Camden and no lawyers association to bring the three vicinages together.  There were no Magistrate Judges or Bankruptcy Court Judges.  There were—at most—one or two local rules in place at that time.

On, June 1, 1969, Michael Keller, who had served as Clerk of the Court, became the District’s first (and sole) Magistrate.  Magistrates—judicial officers who officially became Magistrate Judges in 1990—were originally tasked with resolving preliminary matters and trying to settle as many cases as possible before trial.   Since then, in New Jersey our Magistrate Judges have taken on a far more active and visible role in the administration of justice.  We now have 13 full-time in our three vicinages.  In fiscal year 1997, Magistrate Judges in this District handled 12,691pretrial matters in civil and criminal cases combined.  By fiscal year 2013, they handled 14,490 pretrial matters in civil cases alone.  There is no question that Magistrate Judges play an indispensable role in this District today. 

Currently, the are 21 District Court Judges in our District, with each handling an ever-increasing case load. In 1992, the District had 6,322 civil and criminal case filings.  By 2010, there were 8,138 case filings.  In 2019, there were 27,017 case filings in the District, a 33.9% increase from the prior year.  Not only has the number of cases increased significantly, but the nature of the docket has also become increasingly complex.  For example, the District has seen an influx of intellectual property litigation.    From 1995 through 2012, our District ranked second out of the top five districts in the country with highest volume of ANDA pharmaceutical cases.  In 2012, our District had nearly 200 patent case filings, ranking sixth in the nation.  To ease the management of these complex cases,  then-Chief Judge Simandle organized and led a Local Patent Rules Committee, which drafted Local Civil Rule 9.3 (containing a comprehensive set of Local Patent Rules).  The Local Patent Rules were adopted in our District in December 2008.

The Bankruptcy Court as we know it today began to take shape after the passage of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978.   Its administrative functions were consolidated into a single Clerk’s Office, while its staff were located in Camden, Newark and Trenton. There are 9 Bankruptcy Judges serving in the District as of 2021 handling approximately 15,000 matters per year.

To accommodate the needs of an expanding Bench and Bar, new courthouses were constructed in all three vicinages beginning in the 1990s.  The Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Building & Courthouse opened in Newark in 1992. The Clarkson S. Fisher Courthouse opened in Trenton in 1993.  The Mitchell H. Cohen Courthouse opened in Camden in 2000.

By 1985, there were over 20,000 attorneys admitted to practice in our District.   With the mission of bringing together judges, lawyers and historians to preserve the proud history and celebrate the spirit of the Federal Family, the Historical Society of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey was established in 1988.  Today, the Historical Society remains—in the words of co-founder and first President Donald A. Robinson, Esq.—“alive and well.” It has grown to include over 200 hundred members, including 20 law firm memberships.

The composition of the bench has changed substantially in recent years.  In 1979, Judge Anne E. Thompson became the first African American and first female judge  in our District. In 1983, she was joined by the second female, Judge Maryanne Trump Barry, now a Circuit Judge.  In 1985, Judge Joseph Rodriguez became the first Hispanic American District Judge in our District.  The first foreign born District Judges were former Chief Judge Anthony Augelli (born in Italy and appointed in 1961), Judge Joseph A. Greenaway, Jr. (now a Circuit Judge, born in Great Britain and appointed in 1996), and Judge Jose L. Linares (born in Cuba and appointed in 2003).  In 1997, Judge Susan D. Wigenton, became the District’s first African American Magistrate Judge and later became our District’s fourth African American District Judge.  Judge Esther Salas became the District’s first Hispanic female Magistrate Judge in 2006 and District Judge in 2011.

Advances in technology have in many ways revolutionized the way business is conducted in our District.  For example, the electronic filing system—designed to ease the process of filing documents and retrieving information—was first introduced in the Bankruptcy Court in 2003 and in the District Court in 2004.  Before its introduction, each morning, the docket clerks would retrieve their docket trays containing docket sheets and wheel them to their desks.  Docket sheets were then processed through typewriters and entries were checked by a supervisor.  Every night, the trays of docket sheets were wheeled into a fire proof vault.  With the introduction of the service known as Case Management/Electronic Case Filing (CM/ECF), attorneys no longer had to hurry to the courthouse to file papers or obtain copies of court records during regular business hours.  For the first time, attorneys could file their own documents 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from any location with internet access.  Attorneys could also view online or download all documents filed with the Court after January 5, 2004 from the comfort of their homes or offices.  Although docket clerks continue to analyze and manage docket information, standardized events allow them to enter case information more efficiently through a series of pre-designed screens and pre-printed text.   Though the CM/ECF system now seems second nature, its introduction in 2004 was no doubt a game changer.  It represented an entirely new way of doing business in the District, with added flexibility and reduced costs.

Although the District has celebrated significant milestones in the past decades, it has also faced its challenges and has repeatedly tackled the issues presented head-on.   For example, as of 2009, almost 60 percent of New Jersey’s former inmates were arrested again within three years of their release.  In an effort to stop this expensive and counterproductive cycle, our District launched a federal re-entry court pilot program in January 2013.  The program is designed to facilitate the re-entry of federal inmates into society by providing them support in obtaining education, counseling, rehabilitation, legal assistance, housing and jobs.  The District’s Re-Entry Court functions as a collaboration of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Public Defender and the Probation Office to provide intensive supervision and re-entry services to individuals leaving federal prison and determined by Probation to be at serious risk of reoffending. 

Another major challenge to the Court occurred in October 2012, when New Jersey was hit with Hurricane Sandy, resulting in catastrophic flooding throughout the state and the devastation of many of its shore towns.  Well over 1,000 cases were filed in our District concerning flood losses and wind damage stemming from Hurricane Sandy.   Our District responded to the influx by promptly establishing a court-wide Hurricane Sandy Case Management Order, the goal of which is to streamline the cases by providing for prompt mutual disclosures of contentions, facts and documents and to resolve the cases on an expedited basis by way of settlement or court-annexed arbitration. 

The Court faced an unprecedented historic crisis when the Covid-19 pandemic hit New Jersey in March 2020, leading to the issuance of a series of Standing Orders closing the District’s Courthouses to the public and mandating virtual court hearings in civil and criminal matters.  The Court radically changed its operations for an extended period of time but never stopped operating, thanks to hard work and creative thinking by the Judges, the Clerk’s Office, and other members of the Court family. 

Our District has evolved from a small and simple organization into a complex and sizeable institution.  Today, the District Court Clerk’s Office services over 30 Senior Judges, District Judges and Magistrate Judges, in three vicinages.  It employs over four hundred—including Clerk’s Office staff, Chambers staff, Pretrial Services and Probation.  Our Bankruptcy Court has likewise grown into a thriving organization with nine Bankruptcy Judges and more than 100 employees.  There are currently over 80,000 attorneys admitted to practice in our District and over 500 pages of highly detailed local civil and criminal rules carefully designed to help streamline the increasingly complex practice of law in this District.  We are among the national leaders in complex multidistrict litigation and intellectual property cases.   The Historical Society will continue to  celebrate the rich history and the continued growth and success of the District Court.