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Op-Ed: An Independent Task Force to Assess Judicial Independence

State Bar Association seeks to identify missteps that led to current stalemate over appointments to New Jersey courts

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Gov. Alfred E. Driscoll succinctly summarized the driving force behind the adoption of New Jersey’s 1947 Constitution: “Our primary, our basic purpose in the drafting of a new Constitution is to secure beyond any question a strong, competent, easily functioning, but always independent, judiciary” (4 Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of 1947, at 428-29).

Although the procedures put in place by our 1947 Constitution have, for the most part, worked relatively smoothly to achieve the goal Gov. Driscoll so eloquently articulated, New Jersey is, unfortunately, currently in the midst of an apparent standoff between two branches of our government, the executive and the legislative, with respect to appointments to the third, judicial, branch.

The result is that the third branch, the judicial branch, is, most unwillingly, the victim of this struggle. The judicial branch, moreover, because it is precluded from inserting itself into political disputes, lacks the ability either to defend itself from attacks made against it in the heat of the political struggle, or the ability to extricate itself from the fray.

The New Jersey State Bar Association, acting to secure the aims of Gov. Driscoll and those who joined him in the drafting and ratification of our 1947 Constitution, has formed a Task Force on Judicial Independence, composed of former judges, respected lawyers, and academics.

The purpose of the task force is not to attempt to resolve the present political struggle; that resolution is wholly within the purview of those involved. Nor is the purpose of the task force to review what has occurred in the past to determine which party is more culpable in creating the impasse. It would be both unseemly and fruitless to attempt to discern the motives of those involved.

Rather, the purpose of the task force is twofold: first, to examine what has occurred, and to consider whether there are any procedures or steps that could prevent such unfortunate events occurring in the future, and secondly, to educate and inform the members of the public with respect to their vital interest in assuring the existence of a “strong, competent, easily functioning, but always independent judiciary.”

In pursuit of these goals, the task force envisions holding a series of hearings, at which various views and recommendations can be presented. The task force will not permit these hearings to be used as a forum in which individuals or groups seek to attribute fault or blame. It will hear only from individuals or groups sincerely interested in the betterment of the underlying procedures and standards. The task force envisions that at the end of these hearings, and subsequent deliberation and consideration of the material presented to it, it will issue a report, with recommendations.

The members of the task force are not approaching this effort with any preconceived views as to what steps or changes, if any, they will recommend at the conclusion of these hearings. All are pledged to approach the issue with an open mind, attempting only to serve the citizens of this state. Similarly, all are determined to make their final recommendations based solely upon their best judgment, without regard to which person or entity might be discomfited.

The task force is acutely aware that its ultimate views, whatever they may be, will only constitute recommendations and may ultimately end up being entirely disregarded. It is also mindful that whatever views it may express will not be infallible and may be capable of improvement by others. It the task force’s strong hope, however, that those individuals and entities vested with the solemn responsibility for the governance and management of this state, will entertain these recommendations seriously and will act only for the betterment of our state and our citizens.

Dorothea O’C. Wefing and Maurice Gallipoli are co-chairs of the NJSBA’s Judicial Independence Task Force. Wefing is a retired Appellate Division judge who was temporarily assigned to the Supreme Court. Gallipoli retired last year as assignment judge in Hudson County. They are both now in private practice.

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