Weekly Roundup: Week of Aug. 12

TRENTON – Gov. Chris Christie continued to joust with the Democratic-controlled Senate over the make-up of the state Supreme Court, gay marriage supporters and foes had a day in court, the U.S. Senate primaries ended without any surprises, some of the victims of last year’s hurricane made it clear New Jersey might not be stronger than the storm after all, and several key bills had their fate decided.

That means it was quite a busy week in Trenton considering that it was the middle of August.


High court

Christie kicked off the week by informing Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens that despite the fact he considered her eminently qualified, he would not renominate her for tenure.

The reason Christie gave is that he blamed Senate Democrats – in particular Sen. Ray Lesniak – for public vows to oppose his court appointees.

Lesniak did in fact acknowledge on Monday that Hoens would have faced some tough scrutiny regarding her level of independence from the administration.

But instead, she will be out later this year and in her place Christie has nominated Camden County Judge Faustino Fernandez-Vina.

Fernandez-Vina is Cuban born and would bring diversity to the court, Christie said. “They’re going to have to come up with some real fancy footwork’’ to find a reason not to approve the nomination, Christie said.

The Senate found him qualified for reappointment to Superior Court less than two years ago, so it will be hard for the Democrats to find a reason not to approve his elevation to the high court, according to Christie.


Gay marriage

The issue of same-sex marriage was heard before a Mercer County Superior Court judge this week after a few weeks of filings by both sides.

Supporters are seeking for immediate action by arguing that because the U.S. Supreme Court recently tossed the Defense of Marriage Act, civil union couples in New Jersey are being discriminated against and are being denied federal benefits.

However, the state argued that in New Jersey, marriages and civil unions are equal under state law, and that any inequality exists with federal law, so therefore any legal challenge is better suited for federal court.

The judge in the case may take some time to decide this, and it safely can be assumed that any decision will likely lead to further court action.



In a U.S. Senate Primary campaign pretty much devoid of drama, front-runners held the day.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker won the Democratic primary; former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan won the Republican primary.

They face off in a general election that could provide fireworks because the two are so ideologically far apart.

Considering the low turnout in the primary, it will be interesting to see what kind of turnout their general election showdown gets.



Senate and Assembly environment committee members convened a post-Sandy hearing in Atlantic City.

It was a setting that allowed former Cabinet members and average citizens to let loose a stream of criticisms toward the Christie administration’s handling of Sandy aid and other issues.

A former Department of Environmental Protection head said DEP is headed in the wrong direction, enacting substantive changes with insufficient public input.

Storm victims told horror stories of losing their homes, then having to fight inflexible bureaucracies in their quest for aid and information.

Lawmakers such as Assemblywoman Grace Spencer and Sen. Bob Smith pledged to seek answers, in particular from the Department of Community Affairs. Some residents testified at the hearing that that agency in particular has been difficult to deal with.

The hearing became something of a wide-ranging forum to discuss other issues, such as affordable housing.  Advocates said Sandy provides a setting for the state to re-examine the whole issue and hold a discussion on where affordable housing should be situated.



Christie conditionally vetoed a bill that would have made it easier for parents to obtain medical marijuana for children.

He agreed to lift restrictions on the number of strains that could be grown, and to allow minors to have access to edible forms.

But he said approvals of other professionals need to be maintained.  Parents must obtain the OK of either a psychiatrist or pediatrician who participates in the program.  If neither do, then the concurrence of both would be needed.

Supporters of the bill pointed out that the reality is few, if any pediatricians or psychiatrists will participate in the program, so that will remain a hurdle for many.

Christie returned the bill to the Legislature, urging it to reconvene and consider his recommendations.



Late Friday, Christie acted on several outstanding firearms bills.

He vetoed the bill that would have banned .50-caliber military-style weapons.

He conditionally vetoed a bill backed by Senate President Steve Sweeney that would have overhauled how firearms are permitted in the state. 

Christie said there was no money budgeted for nor technology available yet to implement a key provision that would have linked gun information in a digital format overseen by three state agencies.

He did support other aspects of the bill, including a new firearms ID card.

Legislators generally reacted along party lines to Christie’s actions, with leading Democrats criticizing his vetoes, saying he put his political ambitions above residents’ safety. Republicans applauded the governor’s actions, including signing a bill that sets up a commission to study the problem of school violence.



Weekly Roundup: Week of Aug. 12