It’s a new Judiciary Committee as Senators start questioning judicial nominees

Two Democratic Senators seemed a bit piqued yesterday when the Hudson County Assignment Judge implied that the Senate Judiciary Committee was dragging a Superior Court Judge through the mud as they questioned him during a confirmation hearing that would give Frederick Theemling tenure until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of seventy. The reaction of State Sens. Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) and Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) sends a signal that the Judiciary Committee, in a change of direction, is prepared to question judicial nominees about their records.

Theemling, a former Hudson County Prosecutor and a candidate for Congress against Robert Menendez (D-Hoboken) in 1992, seemed incredibly unprepared for any questions from Senators regarding his nearly seven years on the bench. Scutari was seeking an explanation for what appeared to be an unusually large number of appeals to his decisions – 114 of his cases were appealed since becoming a Superior Court Judge.

In Trenton to support and defend Theemling, Assignment Judge Maurice Gallipoli accused the Senators of treating Theemling harshly. “I earnestly suggest to you that this is a good man who should not be dragged through the mud,” Gallipoli told the panel.

That bothered Lesniak, who told Gallipoli that the role of the Judiciary Committee was to question nominees about their “qualification, character, ability and record.”

“Asking legitimate questions about that record has nothing to do with dragging a person through the mud,” Lesniak said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), hinting of a change from the way his predecessors ran confirmation hearings, told Gallipoli that the line of questioning was “very transparent and a fair debate on Judge Theemling’s record.” And Sarlo noted that the questioning of Theemling opened the door to questions on the judicial record of Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin during his confirmation hearing on June 15.

Scutari has emerged as one of the leaders on the committee – to the point that some Democratic insiders are questioning whether Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland) should have picked him and not Sarlo to replace John Adler (D-Cherry Hill) earlier this year.

“Contrary to popular belief, this committee is not a rubber stamp. It is a committee of senators that is here to inquire about cases and about judges. None of these questions have been inappropriate,” Scutari told Gallipoli. “When I got on this committee six years ago, it seemed as though we didn’t (question judicial nominees). The fact that we ask questions is not something I’d like to see less of. I’d like to see more of it.”

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE HEARING ON MAY 18, 2009. THE THEEMLING NOMINATION COMES ABOUT 12:50 INTO THE PROCEEDINGS

It’s a new Judiciary Committee as Senators start questioning judicial nominees