Legislators Unhappy with Christie’s Decision to Withdraw Essex County Judge Nominations

By David Cruz

Tempers can fray in the frenzied final days of the fiscal year, when the budget and scores of bills and nominations are on the legislative agenda. Evidently that’s exactly what happened this week when Gov. Chris Christie abruptly withdrew his nomination of eight judges to the Essex County courts, unraveling a deal that had been more than two years in the making.

“We make agreements regarding nominations all the time but those agreements can’t undermine the constitutional advice and consent authority of the Senate and the Senate Judiciary Committee to fully vet these nominees properly,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Nicholas Scutari.

It all fell apart, according to committee members, when Democrats raised a red flag over the nomination of David Cohen. The committee decided to hold all eight the nominations for 10 days in order to reschedule a witness who was ready to testify against Cohen’s nomination.

“That smells to me like, when you take a red herring and you make it into a big deal. You’re upsetting the applecart on the whole deal that has been put together because if Cohen doesn’t go then their whole package is down the tubes. The other seven people are down the tubes and maybe the next eight,” said Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Gerald Cardinale.

In the world of Senate politics, deals over judicial nominations are built on the fragile foundation of party balance and senatorial courtesy. In Essex, especially, appointments to the courts, which are the busiest in the state, have been sidetracked by disagreements between the governor and Democrats. A couple of years ago it was over the nomination of Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

This time around, this is how the governor described it at his town hall event yesterday. “I come from here and I think a deal is a deal. When you look across the aisle at somebody and you put your hand out and say I’m willing to compromise with you, you going to compromise with me, yes, we shake hands and say this is the deal and then they renege on the deal, then there’s no deal. So what I did yesterday was — with the power of the governorship — I withdrew all eight of the nominations. You’re not gonna play the way you’re supposed to, then we’re not playing at all,” Christie said.

And the net effect of all the political chest-thumping is long delays within the Essex Court system, which is down 21 judges and has had to import judges from around the state to fill some of the holes on the bench. Until earlier this week, officials were ready to exhale as the logjam seemed to clear. That is until tempers flared in Trenton and put everyone back at square one.

Sources say this too shall pass, that cooler heads will prevail and that, before too long, Essex County will have its judges, which sounds remarkably like what they said more than two years ago.