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State Senate Confirms Supreme Court Judge, Passes Tuition Equality Bill

Upper chamber fails to reverse Christie veto on humane treatment for pregnant pigs, takes pass on challenging conditional veto on cleaner cars

Faustino Fernando-Vina

Pregnant pigs, nonpolluting cars, and immigrant students are going to need more help than they got Monday from Republican state legislators.

In an eventful lame-duck session on Monday, the state Senate confirmed Superior Court Judge Faustino Fernandez-Vina to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court on a 38-0 vote.

Also on the docket: an attempt to overturn Gov. Chris Christie's veto of a bill that would ban restrictively confining cages for female pigs, and a chance -- not taken -- to challenge the governor's conditional veto of a measure that would establish a task force on alternative vehicles. In other business, a passionately argued tuition-equality bill was passed by Senate Democrats, although not by a veto-proof margin.

Fernandez-Vina, a Cuban immigrant who put himself through school, won support for his judicial work even from state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), who criticized him for ducking some questions during a confirmation hearing.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) praised the “extraordinary” sight of ideological opposites Lesniak and state Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren) voting the same way, saying it demonstrated Fernandez-Vina’s abilities.

The bipartisan agreement interrupted a feud over the high court between Christie and legislative Democrats. Then things got back to normal.

Despite a large turnout of pink-shirted advocates of humane treatment of animals, Christie’s fortunes and those of pigs continued along opposite paths.

Continuing the governor’s streak of never having one of his vetoes overturned by the Legislature, Lesniak pulled a vote on an override attempt aimed at protecting female pigs from harsh confinement in “gestation crates” -- tight metal and concrete cages.

With the “yes” vote count stuck at 25, two short of the necessary total to overturn Christie’s veto, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) announced that Lesniak was withdrawing the motion.

The action preserves Lesniak’s ability to bring the measure up again, Sweeney noted, but could not say when that might happen. Democrats were missing state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), whose legislative term is expiring after she was trounced by Christie in the gubernatorial election two weeks ago.

But more troubling to humane activists, they failed to garner the votes of most of the Republicans who helped overwhelmingly pass the measure before Christie’s veto.

“Until today, we thought the governor might not invest much political capital in protecting this veto,” said Bruce Friedrich, a strategist for Farm Sanctuary. “But he pushed (Republicans) very, very hard.”

The governor’s vehemence puzzled even some New Jersey farmers, who said his veto hurts them as well as the animals.

“I live on a farm and we would never use gestation crates,” said Katherine Schwartzer of Delaware Township.

Keeping sows in gestation cages “is very bad for the image of the (pork) industry and very bad for the animals’ health,” said Michael Clampffer, who has the state’s largest swine herd at Mosefund Farm in Branchville.

“No one in New Jersey asked the governor for this veto, so you wonder why he did it,” Clampffer said.

But the override failure provided a timely victory for an embattled Christie ally, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an advocate for factory farming. King is leading a push in the U.S. House of Representatives to undermine state and local laws aimed at protecting animals, such as the gestation crate ban, or public health and safety in food production.

King has been a major force in Iowa, whose political caucuses are the first test for prospective 2016 Republican presidential candidates like the governor. But he has suffered some backlash from his comment that some Mexican immigrants have “thighs like cantaloupes” from smuggling drugs, and his efforts to protect dogfights and cockfights and allow children to attend.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Senate also put off a vote to accept the governor’s conditional veto of a bill creating a task force to identify obstacles to the creation of alternative fuel vehicles with low or even zero harmful emissions.

Even for some supporters in the alternative vehicle industry, there are doubts about the prospect of a government task force setting policy for how many cars must be sold and by what date, especially when infrastructure such as charging stations is still lacking.

For others, though, that situation is another example of the state failing to address environmental issues. Christie pulled New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as well as an eight-state initiative to promote cleaner cars.

The conditional veto would give the state Department of Environmental Protection the power to reject the task force’s findings at a time when some environmentalists do not trust the department’s commitment to protecting the environment.

Even on an issue that did get approval vote, allowing the New Jersey children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates and receive financial aid, a dearth of Republican support left the bill’s long-term prospects uncertain.

In sometimes impassioned statements, Democrats described the bill as providing the same opportunities to any students raised in New Jersey, who had no control over how they got here.

The measure is “about fairness and equality” said Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), one of the sponsors. “It begins to have a truthful conversation about who we are as a state.”

Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic) said that as a grade school teacher, he has students of varied backgrounds. Some may not even know their origins, he said, “but they’re as American in their hearts as you or I.”

Wherever their parents may have come from, “these children live here,” Sweeney said.

“We don’t care that there are people who work, who are clearing our tables, who may be doing other jobs that Americans don’t want, who are paying taxes,” he said. Accepting their children into college “comes as a package,” he said.

After all the rhetorical flourishes, though, the bill passed with only 25 votes, the same veto-vulnerable margin that caused Lesniak to scuttle the gestation crate override. The politics could be tricky for Christie, though, if he wants to line up Hispanic support for future campaigns.

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