The president and Senate are in a stalemate over filling a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court, but the standoff over a vacancy on the New Jersey State Supreme Court is winding down. The state Senate has refused to confirm four consecutive Christie nominees — all Republicans. Now he’s nominated a Democrat — Walter Timpone — and in so doing maintains the balance of power on the bench: three Republicans, three Democrats and one Independent. There’s a long history here and no one knows it better than Former State Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero. He spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.
Williams: How does one new person affect the court?
Verniero: Well the new person affects the court almost immediately. When you have a seven member court, the change of even one justice will make a big difference. He will bring a unique perspective, his own perspective, to a host of responsibilities that he will have and that could change quite a bit.
Williams: When you first sat on the court were you conscious that you were making a change?
Verniero: I was, and I was also made to feel very welcomed on the court. You know, it’s a welcoming court. It’s a collegiate court. You’re joining a court of six other members, all of whom has excellent reputations in the legal community, as does this nominee. He has an extremely qualified background so I think he will feel very welcomed on the court and he’ll get right to work.
Williams: Let’s talk about this gentleman’s agreement — three Republicans, three Democrats, one Independent. Had Christie been successful in adding a fourth Republican how would that have changed it historically?
Verniero: Well it’s hard to say. There was a point in time where there were actually four members of the Democratic Party on the court, two Republicans and one Independent so I’ll leave that to others to sort out. I think at this point looking forward, this new nominee brings a very impressive background of public service, private sector experience and I think he will have a very strong impact.
Williams: I think that the gentleman’s agreement presupposed that the court is politicized. Is it politicized or are they just looking at case law and constitutional law?
Verniero: I have not found the court to be political.
Williams: We should say partisan.
Verniero: It’s not partisan, that was my experience. We never looked at issues from a partisan perspective. In fact if you close your eyes in oral argument and you hear a justice ask a question, it’s hard to tell whether that justice is a Democrat or a Republican or an Independent. The court is prepared, the court is very thoughtful, the court takes a very serious look at the law and the facts before it and it makes its best judgement.
Williams: Superior Court Judge Mary Cuff has been filling in for her. Is there a difference between a stand-in, if you will, and a permanent member?
Verniero: Well there is no difference in terms of authority, certainly, and Judge Cuff did a terrific job, let me say. But I think it is the design of the court to have seven permanent members, each with their own perspective. So this is good news for the institution of the court. I think it’s good news for the system of justice in New Jersey.
Williams: You’ve said that Judge Timpone is a highly qualified, well-esteemed judge. He was a U.S. prosecutor like Gov. Christie. How do you think he’s specifically going to change the court?
Verniero: Well I think it’s too early to tell. I mean everything I know of the new justice, if he is confirmed, is that he’ll be an open minded person, an independent thinker. He will approach each case on their merits and that’s what I did. I was a former attorney general. I had a law enforcement background, but I also was very open minded and I approached each case as they came to me.
Williams: OK, Peter Verniero thanks for being with us.
Verniero: Thank you.