It took nearly six years for Gov. Chris Christie to end a bitter political dispute with Senate Democrats over the makeup of the New Jersey Supreme Court, but yesterday it took only a few hours for their compromise nominee to clear a key hurdle.
The Senate Judiciary Committee granted unanimous approval to veteran lawyer Walter Timpone, bringing the high court one step closer to having a full complement of justices who’ve been nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. That’s something Christie cited as a primary reason for ending his long deadlock with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) earlier this month.
Timpone’s advancement yesterday also puts the court in a position to maintain a tradition of balance between the political parties that’s been followed for decades in New Jersey. Timpone is a Democrat, and he will be the third from his party on the seven-member Supreme Court if the full Senate confirms him during a vote that’s now scheduled for Monday. Keeping that balance was a key priority for Sweeney, who for years resisted the Republican governor’s attempts to move the court further to the right but offered to hold a hearing for any Democrat the governor found fit for the position.
But Timpone’s clearance by the committee also helps ensure the court will end up with less racial diversity than it had when Christie first took office in early 2010, an issue that was raised by one of the committee’s members during the hearing yesterday.
Still, for all of the [http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/13/08/13/christie-s-judicial-shuffle-escalates-supreme-court-battle/|political bickering] that preceded Timpone’s nomination, the hearing yesterday focused primarily on his experience and background -- including Timpone’s night-school efforts to complete a law degree from Seton Hall University School of Law. And several senators couldn’t hold back their praise for him as the hearing progressed, conceding during their initial questioning that they were already planning to advance his nomination.
“I think you’re having a good morning,” joked Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) at one point during the hearing.
Senators on the panel also questioned Timpone about his approach to the law, and the philosophy he would bring to the Supreme Court if he were to win full Senate confirmation. Timpone, in response, stressed a focus on integrity and independence.
“Whatever you do, do it with a sense of fairness, of compassion, and of objectivity,” he said. He also carefully avoided answering directly when asked about specific cases like those involving school-funding and election law that have already been decided by the Supreme Court -- but may come before it again.
“It’s necessary to just look at each case that comes before you with fresh eyes, with an open mind and dispassionately,” Timpone said.
But the hearing also covered some elements of controversy that have followed Timpone during his 30-year legal career, which included 10 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey and 20 years in private practice at Morristown-based McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter. The Cranford resident has also served on the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission as a Christie appointee since 2010.
More than a decade ago, Timpone was in line to become the first assistant U.S. attorney under Christie, who was then the nominee to be U.S. attorney for New Jersey. But Timpone withdrew his candidacy after questions were raised publicly about a meeting he had with then-U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ). At the time, federal authorities were looking at Torricelli’s actions and were reportedly hoping to recruit a client of Timpone’s as a confidential informant.
Asked about the issue yesterday, Timpone said he met with Torricelli at his home in 2001 for an interview the senator requested before signing off on his selection as first assistant. He said he had a similar meeting with then-U.S. Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ) in Washington, D.C., but Torricelli asked to have that meeting in his home in Bergen County instead.
Timpone yesterday said at no time did he and Torricelli discuss anything but issues related to his potentially becoming the first assistant under Christie.
“We chatted for a while, perhaps under half an hour,” Timpone said. “At no time was Sen. Torricelli and I alone.”
But he also conceded that when asked by federal authorities later about the meeting with Torricelli that he handled his interaction with them in a too “lawyerly” manner.
“I’ve had a lot of time, 14 years, to think about this,” Timpone said. “I got nicked and I paid the price.”Several senators said his straightforward explanation yesterday eased any concerns they had about the issue.
Timpone also faced questions about a recusal decision he made in more recent years as a member of ELEC when a complaint filed against Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo regarding his use of campaign funds came before the agency. Timpone said his firm has done work for the county, and a decade earlier he sought out DiVincenzo when his nephew was hoping to get a job working for Essex County government. Later, after getting the job, his nephew had a falling out with DiVincenzo, Timpone said.
He said he didn’t want those circumstances to taint an agency ruling on the complaint, so he asked for a recusal.
“My personal ethics are really important to me,” Timpone said. “I didn’t want to damage either my personal ethics or the reputation of the Election Law Enforcement Commission.”
The senators also very briefly asked about Timpone’s decision to represent former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly as the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal known as Bridgegate broke in early 2014. It was Kelly who is alleged to have sent the email declaring it was “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” something federal prosecutors have said was part of a plot carried out by Kelly and two other Christie allies that involved closing several access lanes at the bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign.
Christie has steadfastly denied knowing about the plot beforehand or having any involvement.
Timpone, who only briefly represented Kelly, acknowledged yesterday he should not have taken her on as a client given his position with ELEC, calling it “an oversight.”
But the senators quickly moved on from those matters during the hearing, focusing instead on Timpone’s background and record of public service. Timpone said he started his career as a teacher in New York City before going to law school at night. And in addition to working for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Timpone has also served as a federal election monitor in Passaic County and as an ombudsman for the federal Department of Defense.
“You’re going to be a great justice on that court,” said Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson). “Your life is all about public service.”
Christie also issued a statement later in the day praising Timpone’s ethics and integrity.
“I look forward to seeing the full Senate on Monday confirm this well-qualified nominee and finally provide New Jersey with a fully constituted court,” Christie said.
Getting Timpone on the high court would put a third Democrat on the bench to go with three Republicans and an independent justice who was seated by a prior Republican governor, Christie Whitman. And since he’s 65, Timpone won’t come up for reappointment before reaching the court’s mandatory age of retirement, which is 70.
Still, his expected full Senate confirmation on Monday will mean the court will continue to lack an African-American justice, something that’s been an ongoing issue since Christie decided in 2010the court’s only black member, former Justice John Wallace, a Democrat. That came as Christie said he needed to shake up a Supreme Court that he said had become too activist in its decisions on issues like school funding and affordable housing.
But that decision also set off the feud with Sweeney and other Senate Democrats, and they refused to hold a hearing to fill the vacant seat as long as Christie advanced a Republican for the position. Christie and Sweeneythat Timpone was their compromise pick on April 11.
The issue of diversity on the court was raised yesterday by Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex). But Gill, who is black, said she was impressed with Timpone, who is white, citing his own personal commitment to diversity and the value of listening to “different voices.”
“As we go forward and others make decisions, I hope to add more diversity to the court,” she said.