MAYS LANDING — Superior Court Judge James Isman had been assigned to preside over jury selection Monday in the upcoming voter-fraud trial involving charges against a dozen defendants, including Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small.
But Isman will be on the bench at a different courthouse.
The Atlantic County judge — who has been assigned to criminal court since he was appointed to Superior Court in 1998 — will move to civil court in Atlantic City next week, leaving Cape May County Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten to oversee the trial of the first six defendants in the case.
That will leave just Superior Court Judge Kyran Connor in Cape May County’s Criminal Division during the three to six months the trial could take.
Small and 13 others were indicted last September on charges they disenfranchised voters in Atlantic City’s 2009 Democratic mayoral primary by filling out absentee ballots themselves or changing people’s votes on the ballots. Since that time, two defendants have pleaded guilty, leaving a dozen defendants to stand trial.
Isman had said he would attempt to try all the remaining defendants together — as they had requested — but that the final decision would hinge on security issues. When the decision to separate was made, the Attorney General’s Office — which is trying the case — said that the first six would be Small, Floyd Tally, LuQuay Zahir, Tracy Pijuan, Toni Dixon and Thomas Quirk. Tally already is serving a sentence in an unrelated case in which he tried to blackmail then-Councilman Eugene Robinson into resigning by setting him up with a hooker and surreptitiously taping the encounter.
All the defendants face at least nine counts. Small, Pijuan and Quirk are additionally charged with hindering prosecution for allegedly lying to investigators.
Isman was well-versed in the case, which includes thousands of pieces of evidence. But Valerie Armstrong — assignment judge for Atlantic and Cape May counties — said she is not worried about Batten taking over with just a week’s notice.
“I have total confidence in Judge Batten and his capabilities,” she said. “I don’t that it’s going to be an issue.”
Batten has previously presided over election cases in Cape May County, including involvement in the recent petitions to recall Mayor Ernest Troiano Jr. and Commissioner William Davenport.
Armstrong said she received the order from the chief justice confirming Isman’s transfer Monday night. It becomes effective next Monday.
“He’s thoroughly enjoyed working in the Criminal Division but has expressed interest in moving on to another division,” she said of Isman.
Armstrong made the recommendation to fill the empty seat of Judge William Nugent, who moves to the Appellate Division on Monday.
The Atlantic-Cape May County vicinage, which Armstrong oversees, is down five judges but can fill only three seats. Nugent and fellow Appellate Judge Carmen Alvarez — who was in Cape May County before her appointment — still count as part of the counties where they serve until their retirements.
Currently, there are two retired judges working on recall to help the heavy load in Atlantic County. But one, Robert Neustadter, will be lost in December when he turns 80, the mandatory age for a judge to step down.
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