The newest nominee for Superior Court judge in Atlantic County is stirring controversy and opening old campaign arguments.
The nominee, Sarah Beth Johnson, is the wife of outgoing state Sen. Colin Bell, who represents most of Atlantic County in Trenton. State senators are given the courtesy of recommending judges in their own districts. The governor then nominates that person to the position. The nominee has to be confirmed by the state Senate.
Johnson, of Margate, will take over for Noah Bronkesh at the Atlantic County Civil Courts Building if she is confirmed. Bronkesh retired earlier this year.
Sen.-elect Chris Brown and the Atlantic County Bar Association have created a bipartisan com…
Republicans immediately blasted Johnson’s nomination, saying Bell is looking to line his own pockets before leaving the Senate in January.
The Atlantic County Democratic Committee selected Bell to take over the Senate seat that opened when Jim Whelan died in August. Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown defeated Bell in the election for the seat Nov. 7.
“The nomination of Senator Colin Bell’s wife to the Superior Court stinks of nepotism and self-dealing. There is an obvious conflict of interest in Senator Bell — a lawyer bound to attorney ethics rules — signing off on his own wife to be a judge,” said Keith Davis, chairman of the Atlantic County Republican Committee. “There is no convenient recusal when it comes to the practice of senatorial courtesy. For a guy who ranted against quid pro quo politics throughout the whole campaign, Bell ought to do the right thing and step down now to remove any hint that this nomination is proceeding with such an obvious conflict of interest.”
Bell did not respond to a request for comment.
Democrats pushed back on the notion of nepotism, saying Whelan was planning on nominating Johnson as far back as June 2016.
In a letter obtained by The Press of Atlantic City, Johnson was contacted by the director of appointments for the state of New Jersey on June 24, 2016, saying her name was submitted as a potential candidate as a Superior Court judge.
The Democrats said Bell will not take part in any discussions or vote on anything regarding the potential nomination of his wife.
The need for a senator to sign off on the nomination under the policy of senatorial courtesy was waived in this case by the governor.
Republican candidates said throughout the 2017 campaign Johnson was going to get nominated in a “quid pro quo” if Bell ran against Assemblyman Chris Brown for the state Senate seat in the 2nd Legislative District.
It was also one of the reasons Sen.-elect Brown said he decided to create a bipartisan committee to identify and recommend local candidates to become judges of the New Jersey Superior Court, the Office of Administration of Law and the Division of Workers’ Compensation in Atlantic County.
The committee, called the Judicial Candidate Review Committee, will change the process of judicial nominations and appointments in Atlantic County, according to Brown.
“Anyone entering a courtroom in Atlantic County needs to know they will be treated fairly and justice, not politics, will be served,” Brown said in a statement when he formed the committee. “The rule of law begins with finding the very best people to preside in our courtrooms.”