I would like to echo The Record editorial board’s Aug. 11, 2014, piece: “It is time to end the practice of holding up nominees for judgeships and other key positions for undisclosed political reasons.”
The Bergen County court system faces a 25 percent judicial vacancy rate, and Essex County, which I also represent in the state Senate, has an almost 40 percent judicial vacancy rate. By October 2014, Passaic County will have a judicial vacancy rate of over 20 percent. These empty courtrooms caused by the political practice of “senatorial courtesy” add to the backlog of divorce and custody cases, as well as delays in criminal and civil matters.
It became clear by 2011 that partisan politics in the state Senate were at play to obstruct Governor Christie’s judicial nominees and, in turn, hurt the very constituents that we all represent.
The practice known as “senatorial courtesy” is an unwritten one that is loosely referred to by the framers of our state constitution in 1947 as a means to ensure members of the state Senate were given the “courtesy” of consultation by a governor prior to a nomination being made. Over the span of six decades, it has morphed into a tool sometimes used as a bargaining chip in bitter partisan battles.
In the Aug. 11 editorial, The Record said, “The power to stop a gubernatorial nomination single-handedly is not something senators are going to want to give up.” But despite the legitimate purposes of courtesy for a senator of the minority party, which The Record editorial board acknowledged, I have for years been trying to lead my colleagues by example and say, “It’s time to end this secrecy and this destructive political game.”
In 2011, I fought against this unwritten rule, in part, by petitioning Senate President Stephen Sweeney to outright eliminate or suspend senatorial courtesy in light of the Essex County judicial crisis. In 2013, I introduced legislation to abolish senatorial courtesy and mandate hearings for New Jersey Supreme Court nominees within 90 days of their nomination dates.
In May, at the Bergen County Bar Association-sponsored judicial independence panel, moderated by Record Editorial Page Editor Alfred P. Doblin, I was asked my position on senatorial courtesy and unequivocally, I restated my position that ending this practice is something we must seriously consider.
As for the crisis in Essex, after four years of deadlock, we finally appear to be on the verge of a filling those vacancies. In Bergen County, discussions have been ongoing for a significant period; I am hopeful for a swift resolution.
However, without fail, whether it is this current vacancy crisis in Bergen and Essex, or the impending crisis in Passaic, it appears that every few years, history repeats itself and we find ourselves knocking on the door of a judicial crisis. Whether it is the measures I have sponsored or those proposed by The Record, it is time to reform this practice of “senatorial courtesy.”
Ultimately, the political desires of 40 members of the Senate should not outweigh the needs of 8 million New Jerseyans.
NJ Senator Kevin O’Toole