TRENTON – The vote to advance Judge Faustino Fernandez-Vina toward a seat on the state Supreme Court was unanimous this afternoon. For a while during the two hour-plus hearing, it looked like there would be at least one no vote.
But in the end, Sen. Ray Lesniak cast an aye for the Camden County Superior Court judge.
At one point, he expressed frustration at a lack of specifics in Fernandez-Vina’s answers to questions, essentially threw up his hands and told Chair Sen. Nicholas Scutari he couldn’t vote for such an uncooperative nominee.
But in the end, he said that he applied a sense of balance to the overall proceedings. It would be Fernandez-Vina for Hoens, not Fernandez-Vina and Hoens.
He pointed out that Fernandez-Vina is replacing Justice Helen Hoens, seen by many Democrats as a reliable conservative voice on the bench that still has two vacancies. In that sense, Fernandez-Vina is being swapped in for Hoens, but he is not advancing the administration’s stated desire to increase its conservative tilt.
And although Gov. Chris Christie – when nominating Fernandez-Vina in August – blamed Lesniak as the reason he did not renominate Hoens, Lesniak said after today’s hearing that Christie is the one who has politicized the court, and that Hoens deserved a chance to appear before the committee.
“Whether I would have voted for her or not, she deserved to have a hearing,’’ he said, a sentiment echoed by Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who also voted yes and expressed disappointment that Fernandez-Vina is replacing a sitting justice to whom Christie denied tenure.
Lesniak said that Christie “has created a serious, unprecedented questioning of the independence of the entire judiciary.”
Exacerbating the concerns today is that – unlike some previous nominees – Fernandez-Vina doesn’t have an extensive body of written opinions from which justices could make deductions about his judicial philosophy. That made it even more difficult to get to his core beliefs.
Lesniak is convinced that the man’s philosophies will dovetail with Hoens’ and that the judge was told by the administration not to divulge specifics during today’s hearing.
But approval of Fernandez-Vina, for one thing, advances the cause of placing a minority on the bench, something that has been an issue for some time. Other sentors also lauded his demeanor.