Rice won’t budge on Cerf, decries gov’s linkage of judicial appointments to education commish

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-28) said he and his constituents have legitimate questions about Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf’s fitness for his job, and criticized Gov. Chris Christie for holding judicial nominations until Rice withdraws his invocation of senatorial courtesy blocking Cerf.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” said the veteran senator from Newark. “I won’t sign off on Cerf at this point but the reality as commissioner of education he has not lost anything as a result of my actions – he still has full authority of that position, whereas the judges are something else. You can’t grab a janitor over there at the courthouse and make him an acting judge until we get the real ones in place, you follow me?”

Essex County Assignment Judge Patricia Costello says 11 vacancies out of 44 Essex judges compelled her to suspend case hearings. Christie says he won’t move on six Superior Court judges until Rice releases Cerf.

In a letter this afternoon, Christie ally state Sen. Kevin O’Toole, (R-40), Cedar Grove, urged state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) to kill Essex County senators’ right to invoke senatorial courtesy in order to dislodge Rice and free up the frozen judicial appointments.

Rice called it a gimmick to make it look like he is the one responsible for holding up the judges, when in fact the decision is wholly Christie’s to tie Cerf to those appointments. 

“Senatorial courtesy is not stopping the judges,” said Rice. “All the governor has to do is send us the names. I respect that O’Toole is doing the governor’s bidding. That’s his prerogative as a Republican, but the judiciary appointment has nothing to do with Cerf. What the governor is trying to do is make an issue in the public light that he’s always right.”

Rice said he would be happy to discuss the issue or debate the governor on the issue in a public townhall meeting but repeatedly denounced what he said is an orchestrated maneuver to make him look like a villain.

“I don’t like getting punched in the face,” said the senator. “There are some real serious issues out there and in this case education has nothing to do with the judicial branch. The governor is giving the impression to the public that I’m using courtesy to block nominations. But he’s using the authority of his office to block the judges. The only reason we don’t have judges is we haven’t received those to sign them yet because the governor hasn’t sent them yet.”

In a statement, Christie said using senatorial courtesy as an excuse to unnecessarily delay confirmation for qualified nominees must end, citing 20 stalled Essex County nominees.

“The behavior of certain legislators in blocking well-qualified nominees for their own narrow, often personal interests is completely unacceptable and now affecting the administration of justice for the citizens of Essex County,” said Governor Christie.  “Highly qualified nominees from Essex County have been delayed an average of 231 days with some sitting dormant for more than a year and half. 

“To deny confirmation of an extraordinarily qualified individual like Chris Cerf, who has already established a record of accomplishment at the Department of Education, is totally unacceptable.  It’s time for the Legislature to fulfill its constitutional duties, move these nominees through the approval process for an up or down vote, and end the unprecedented abuse of senatorial courtesy.  Once these legislators end the games and we have agreement on all nominations, I will nominate qualified individuals for vacant judgeships in the county.”

Sweeney sided with Rice.

“To be clear, the current judicial crisis in the Essex vicinage has something to do with the nominees outlined in this press release only because the governor says they have something to do with it,” said Sweeney Spokesman Derek Roseman. “This judicial crisis is of his creation. There has been agreement for a year over a number of judges who could be seated on the bench by the end of the year if the governor would simply file their nominations with the Senate. The delay in seating those judges rests solely on the governor, not the Senate. Quite simply, the governor has decided to hold the courts in Essex County hostage and deny judges — on whom there is agreement — for no good reason.”

Rice won’t budge on Cerf, decries gov’s linkage of judicial appointments to education commish