When Corzine comes back, who will be in charge?

There is a general reluctance, perhaps rightfully so, to discuss scenarios under which Jon Corzine has a prolonged inability to discharge his duties as Governor of New Jersey.

According to published reports, Corzine’s staff wants set up a temporary headquarters at Cooper Hospital in Camden, where the Governor is recovering from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Corzine would govern from the hospital as soon as he determines his own fitness to return to work.

In the meantime, Richard Codey has returned as Acting Governor. And the friction between him and the Governors loyalists that began back in August 2004 when Corzine became a candidate for the job Codey was about to get — worsened last week after Codey and the staff €” most specifically, Chief Counsel Kenneth Zimmerman €” had a series of key disagreements.

Codey goes back to the Senate Presidency once Corzine decides he is ready to assume the full power of the governorship. And that’s when the real fireworks will start. There is no clear process to determine whether Zimmerman, policy advisor Gary Rose, and Chief of Staff Thomas Shea are playing Edith Wilson. And Codey is no Thomas Marshall.

So while Corzine is running the state from a hospital, a rehabilitation center, or even his home, there will be questions as to whether the Governor €” facing a difficult and exhaustive recovery long-term €” will be the driving force in his own administration.

Some pundits suggest that the circumstances of Corzine’s accident €” riding without a seatbelt in a car going 91 miles per hour in bad weather to get to a meeting with Don Imus €” means diminished public sympathy. That might make it more necessary for his staff to publicly (and frequently) demonstrate that the Governor €” and not Shea and Zimmerman €” is running the state.

The accident will clearly change the Corzine governorship. He could govern with the fervor of a man who believes he has a new lease on life, or he could decide that being Governor was not all he thought it might be.

So far, there has been no talk of resignation €” although it is possible that he could decide to devote 100% of his energies to his recovery. If he were to resign before September 13, a November 6, 2007 Special Election would be held to fill the remaining 26 months of his term. There would be no primary: the Democratic and Republican State Committees would vote to select their respective candidates.

If the resignation came after 9/13, there would be a Special Election in November 2008, with primaries the previous June. There would be no Special Elections if the resignation came after September 2008.

Corzine could also decide not to seek re-election to a second term in 2009 €” opting to serve out his current term and retire in January 2010.

But the decision to leave early is entirely in Corzine’s own hands.
The State Constitution provides that if a Governor “shall have been continuously unable to discharge the duties of his office by reason of mental or physical disability” for a six-month period, “the office shall be vacant.”

But there is an obscure process for rendering a decision on whether or not a vacancy occurs under that provision. The same section of the state Constitution says that “[s]uch vacancy shall be determined by the Supreme Court.” First, the Court would need to be presented a concurrent resolution by two-thirds of each House of the Legislature declaring the ground of the vacancy, and then, “upon notice” the Court holds a hearing to require “proof of the existence of a vacancy.”

The looming deadline now is June 17 €” the day Chief Justice James Zazzali reaches the mandatory retirement age of seventy. If Corzine is back in control, the appointment will be his. But there are some scenarios that would have Codey make the appointment.

The conventional wisdom is that Attorney General Stuart Rabner is slated for the job. Both major parties in New Jersey (as well as the Republicans) give Rabner high marks, and he could likely coast to an easy confirmation. But one insider close to Corzine suggested last week that the accident could change that €” perhaps staying on as Attorney General during Corzine’s long convalescence would be in the state’s best interests.

If the Court were to ultimately conclude that there was a vacancy, Codey — so long as he remained Senate President — would remain Acting Governor through January 2008. But the other intriguing question here is who would be Governor from January through November 2008, when a special election would be held to fill the balance of Corzine’s term.

The Office of Legislative Services has provided the Legislature with legal research opining that when the terms of the Senate President and Assembly Speaker expire (even if they are re-elected to their respective leadership posts), the powers of the Governor would devolve to the Attorney General from January 2008 until the results of a Special Election are certified ten months later. That opinion would undoubtedly become the topic of a legal dispute by whomever is serving as Senate President €” presumably Codey.

For extreme political junkies: more on the reference to Edith Wilson and Thomas Marshall: President Woodrow Wilson suffered a serious stroke in October 1919 that left him partially paralyzed and, arguably, without the capacity to serve as President. Wilson’s health was hidden from the public, and from the Vice President, Marshall. Some historians say that the First lady effectively ruled the nation during the final seventeen months of Wilson’s presidency, keeping the President away from his cabinet, congressional leaders, and reporters.

Codey, more like Lyndon B. Johnson than Thomas Marshall, is not likely to stand on the sidelines and allow Corzine’s staff to govern. One reader used Johnson as an example: “Imagine if JFK had survived the Dallas shooting, but without the capacity to serve as President. Would LBJ have stood by and let Bobby Kennedy run the country? And would Bobby have easily passed the reigns of power over to Acting President Lyndon Johnson.” When Corzine comes back, who will be in charge?