TRENTON – After a four year battle between senate Democrats and the governor’s office over a package of Essex County judicial nominations, the state senate approved the names of eight judges today to serve full terms in the state Superior Court.
Relief was the feeling among lawmakers who worked on the package, moving it along on its journey from the front office to the senate floor.
“I feel good about it, it’s a good day for the people of New Jersey, it’s a good day for the people of Essex County,” state Sen. Nick Scutari (D-2), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told PolitickerNJ following a hearing this morning in the Statehouse. “It’s going to help relieve some pressures with other judges who are sitting out of county and allow them to go back to their counties.”
Home to some of the busiest courthouses in the state, Essex County’s judicial system has been the site of a political tug of war between Gov. Chris Christie, who nominates judicial appointees in the state, and the legislature’s upper house, which approves them. For years, the mostly urban county boasted the highest number of judicial vacancies in the state, at 21. Today the number dropped to 13.
The issue came to a head in Essex County last month when David Cohen, a former director of employee relations for Christie and one of the nominees for the Essex County package, incited a fiery back-and-forth between Christie and senate Democrats after the latter party held up the nomination in favor of hearing testimony from a former Christie staffer. In response, Christie pulled all eight nominations.
He later replaced Cohen’s nomination with that of Stephanie Ann Mitterhoff of Scotch Plains.
Legislators today expressed sighs of relief at the package’s passage, but with 44 judge seats still vacant throughout the state, many recognized the uphill climb that still lies ahead, and called for expediency in getting the remaining seats filled. Years of disagreements between the front office and certain senators over a number of the governor’s picks have helped hold up the process by which the appointments are approved, leading to a dangerously high, legal experts say, number of judicial vacancies in already overburdened court systems.
Oftentimes those disagreements have been between the governor and legislators like state Sen. Ron Rice (D-28) and Richard Codey (D-27), who’ve resorted to the use of senatorial courtesy — an unwritten rule that gives senators the power to block appointments in their home districts without disclosing why — to prevent nominees from taking the bench.
Rice, an Essex County lawmaker who introduced a number of the nominees at the Senate Judiciary hearing where the names were released earlier today, praised the nominees as a “diverse” group of candidates. But he also expressed certain disagreement with the way Christie has handled the nominations, arguing that nominees like Cohen, who was called into question by the committee, “should not be a barrier to the people that are OK.”
Rice has clashed with Christie on nominations before, once in 2010 when he blocked a move by the Republican to appoint Christopher Cerf to state education commissioner. In retaliation, Christie refused to appoint any new judges to fill vacancies in the county.
“I think the governor recognized that,” Rice told PolitickerNJ. “It’s not the first time, it’s not the last time, that a nominee with an issue is going to come up. But you can’t just say, therefore no one else goes forth. That nominee has nothing to do with these nominees, and the governor made a substitution for him anyway.”
Rice and other political observers also note that Christie’s sudden compromise is not coincidental, as the nominations coincide with his recent passage of a controversial bail reform package, which he signed last week on the steps of Trenton City Hall. That package would need judges sitting in the state’s county court systems in order to be implemented smoothly, they say, as it includes a constitutional amendment to allow judges, at their own discretion, to deny violent offenders bail.
“The way the legislation is set up is it’s up to the judges when they go to trial, but without judges you can’t move the system through,” Rice said. “So without these judges, it’s beyond speculation that those bills definitely won’t work. This becomes an important component to making it work.”
“I think this is very important because the legislature and the governor and other promulgated bail reform legislation, and I’ve had concerns along with other civil rights leaders in terms of what bail reform is going to do, when you take away the constitutional right to guarantee bail,” he added.
Both Rice and Scutari said they are confident Christie will announce additional nominations in the coming weeks.