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Is Political Squabble Behind Essex County's Double-Digit Judicial Vacancies?

Until Senator Codey appoints Christie pick to water commission, governor will not nominate any judges -- according to some observers

Essex County Courthouse
Essex County Courthouse.

Earlier this year, Gov. Chris Christie was having breakfast at McLoone’s Boathouse in West Orange with Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, the same place at which the Essex County Bar Association was having a meeting. With a record number of judicial vacancies in Essex County at the time, a member of the bar association asked the governor to stop by and comment on why the positions weren’t being filled.

"The reason nothing’s happening, the reason we’re not appointing 12, 15 judges tomorrow in Essex County is because of Sen. Codey," Christie told bar association members, referring to Essex County Democrat Richard Codey.

That was in April, when there were 15 vacancies. Since then, the problem has only gotten worse. The number of vacancies is now 21.

To appoint a Superior Court judge, the governor makes a nomination and submits it to the Senate, which can then confirm or deny it. But in New Jersey, there is a practice called "Senatorial Courtesy," whereby the Senator in the nominee’s home county can block the nomination from even going to a vote. Christie claims Codey is doing just that.

Codey says the governor is not telling the truth and that in fact he and some other Essex County lawmakers met three years ago with Christie’s former appointments counsel, Michele Brown, and Jeffrey Chiesa, who was then the governor’s chief counsel before becoming Attorney General, and they agreed to a package of six judges that would move forward. But the governor has failed to nominate those six people, Codey said.

“Those six judges have not moved forward. You’re going to have to ask the governor why they haven’t. I made a commitment to sign off on them, and I will,” Codey said.

According to Codey, the problem is that the governor wants to put Cedar Grove Township Manager Thomas Tucci Jr. on the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, and Codey will not sign off on that appointment. Tucci was nominated three times to the commission, beginning in July of 2010 and most recently in February of this year, but the nomination has never made it to a Senate vote.

“I won’t do it,” Codey said, noting that he’s signed off on 90 percent of the governor’s other nominations. “The appointment process is supposed to be a compromise between the Senate and the governor,” he says, adding, “If I’m doing something wrong, how come this [stalemate on appointments] has never happened before?”

“There’s no doubt why this is happening,” said Thomas F. Quinn, an attorney with Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP in Florham Park and president of the Essex County Bar Association. The way he sees it, if Codey won't let the governor appoint someone to the Passiac Valley Water Commission, Christie won't appoint a judge.

Meanwhile, as Codey and Christie go back and forth, the dearth of judges has directly affected anyone awaiting trial, from defendants sitting in jail to people suing large corporations for malpractice.

The problem isn’t just in Essex County. It’s statewide. And it doesn’t seem to be going away.

Almost two years ago, the New Jersey State Bar Association passed a resolution calling on the governor and the Senate to put aside their differences and hire some judges. At the time, there were 47 judicial vacancies -- out of a possible 443. Today, there are 50. Aside from Essex County, Middlesex and Union counties are each down five judges, and Camden County is down four. The rest of the vacancies are scattered throughout the remaining counties.

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