Despite Cerf’s new title, stalemate on Essex judges shows little signs of moving forward

TRENTON – With the word “acting” stripped off of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf’s title as of Monday, headway can be made over the stalemate on Essex County judges.

Not so fast.

A veteran Essex County lawmaker says that well before Cerf went before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week to have the adjective removed from his title, the deadlock over Essex judges showed little sign of being resolved.

Sen. Richard Codey, (D-27), recently told PolitickerNJ that a sit-down with the governor’s administration held about two months ago yielded little in the way of breaking an impasse. The meeting, which was about Essex judges and not Cerf, quickly turned into a meeting “about everything else,” Codey said.

“We had a meeting that we thought was going to resolve just the judges and they, at the last moment, decided they were going to change what the meeting was about,” Codey told PolitickerNJ late last week.

“That meeting ended very quickly,” he added.

The governor’s office agreed with Codey that the meeting was not about Cerf, but disagreed completely about the terms of the meeting.

“The meeting was about Essex County nominations – all of them, judicial and all others, some of which have been in limbo for as much as 800 days,” said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak in an e-mail.

Codey said the meeting he thought would be about Essex judges turned into a conversation of a list of other gubernatorial nominees stuck in limbo for the Legislature’s approval. He didn’t elaborate on the list of nominees waiting for legislative approval, only to say that it was sprung on lawmakers.

He referred to the backlog in Essex County court cases as “absolutely disgraceful.”

“We’re willing to meet anytime, anyplace to (talk) about judges,” he said.

In December 2011, Gov. Chris Christie said he would not nominate anyone to the bench – which had 11 vacancies at the time – until Sen. Ron Rice, (D-28), Newark, relented and allowed Cerf to be appointed as the commissioner of the state’s Department of Education.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee granted Cerf a nomination hearing. His appearance had been held up for more than a year by the practice of senatorial courtesy, in which his home district senator – Rice – put a block on his hearing.

Several attempts to get in contact with Rice for comment were unsuccessful.

Cerf eventually moved to a new district, which raised questions at his hearing, but in the end, the panel unanimously released his nomination.

And though Codey said Democrats are willing to meet at any time to talk about judges, the prominent senator and former governor gave little indication that a meeting was imminent.

“It’s a disgrace,” Codey said.

However, Drewniak accused the senator of “making up stories,” saying Essex stands apart from other counties where the administration and state leaders were able to come to terms and hash out compromises.

“There have been no such problems with nominations in other counties – Hudson, Bergen, Passaic, among them – where packages of nominations, judicial and all others included, moved through a long time ago with consensus between the governor’s office and all the corresponding senators, Democrat and Republican,” Drewniak said.

“The question for Sen. Codey is why he is unwilling to bring the same effective results home for his home county,” he continued.

Codey flat out disagreed, saying Monday that the terms of the meeting changed abruptly.

“The agreement going into the meeting was that it was only going to be about judges, but when we got there, (it) switched,” he said, adding that several other Democratic lawmakers joined him when he walked out of the sit-down.

Codey also called into question Drewniak’s claims those other counties – specifically, Union County – don’t have similar logjams when it comes to filling nominations for certain positions.

Other members of the majority party in the Legislature agreed they would like to move forward with Essex judges. However, like Codey, they expressed little optimism of progress being made in Essex County.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari, (D-22), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said immediately following Cerf’s hearing before the Senate panel that he had “been making some inquiries” about the Essex judge stalemate and thought releasing Cerf’s nomination from committee was “one less barrier.”

Scutari went on to say that he had “been talking to relevant people in Trenton over the last few days hoping, as a result of us moving with Commissioner Cerf’s nomination,” that progress could be made in the Essex judge gridlock, but he stopped short of saying he was confident progress would be immediate.

“I’ve been asking,” he said, declining to discuss further any of his conversations.

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Stalemate on Essex judges to continue: Christie