While it is unfair to the nominees and an example of irresponsible governance, the political downside to the Democrats' reported strategy of delaying consideration of the governor's recommendations for the state Supreme Court is negligible.

A decision to wait until after the November election to act gives Gov. Chris Christie an opportunity to stamp his feet and rail about a do-nothing Democratic Legislature, but ultimately to no avail.

Senate President Steve Sweeney let some air out of the trial balloon when he said he hadn't established a timetable for committee hearings for the nominees and that published reports suggesting an eight-month delay came from anonymous sources in his party caucus. His lack of a definitive denial, however, lent credence to the speculation.

Disputes over gubernatorial nominees have never been galvanizing campaign issues. The level of taxpayer and voter interest in who has been nominated for what position has never been particularly high a history not lost on Senate Democrats.

Tax and spending issues will again dominate the gubernatorial and legislative campaigns, abetted by differing platforms on job creation and economic growth, education funding, health care, transportation and progress - or lack of progress - in rebuilding shore regions devastated by Hurricane Sandy last October.

Democratic legislative candidates have no reason to fear being the target of criticism for the strategy of delay, clearly understanding that voters are motivated by the worrisome kitchen-table issues that directly impact their daily lives. On the list of personal political priorities, Supreme Court nominees don't make the cut.

Adding to their comfort level is the legislative districts' composition, which tilts heavily toward incumbents. Absent a crushing landslide in the gubernatorial race, Democrats will likely retain control of the Legislature.

Middlesex County state Sen. Barbara Buono, the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee, may make use of the impasse by blaming the governor for attempting to stack the Supreme Court with justices who share his political philosophy and agenda, particularly on the question of the constitutionality of the state's formula for allocating aid to local school districts.

Christie has been outspoken in his criticism of the court for its repeated rulings ordering increased aid to at-risk districts and has argued that the only method available to change the formula is to change the composition of the court.

While Buono will make the argument that the governor is undermining the tradition of judicial independence by imposing what appears to be a litmus test on his selections, it is an issue with limited resonance.

There is, though, a distinct lack of fairness in consigning the nominees, Superior Court Judge Robert Bauman, presiding judge in the civil division in Monmouth County, and Board of Public Utilities Commissioner Robert M. Hanna, to a sort of limbo land, forced to wait nearly eight more months before even securing an opportunity to make their case for a seat as an associate justice.

While neither nominee has commented publicly, they must be experiencing a keen frustration over becoming pawns in political combat between the governor and the Senate.

The court itself would not be particularly hampered by the delay; it will continue to hear cases and deliver opinions with its full complement of seven, reached by the participation of two acting justices temporarily re-assigned from the Appellate Division.

While it is not unusual for acting justices to sit on the court, temporary re-assignment is normally brief and usually results from a recusal by a justice. Filling in for eight months is, however, not common practice.

There is a risk of a public relations problem in the delay strategy, brought on by the perception that it is another petty political squabble between the governor and the Senate, with a non-political Supreme Court caught in the middle. It is a risk the Democrats appear willing to assume, convinced it will be a non-issue in the campaign.

As a practical matter, there is little Christie can do to force the Senate to act on Hanna and Bauman's nominations. Political accommodations are, of course, always possible, but Senate Democrats appear committed to a delay and reaching a resolution under which they'd back away from it appears remote.

The governor has already hammered the Senate leadership for its refusal to act, going so far as to suggest that Sweeney decline his legislative paycheck for failing to discharge his responsibility. Christie can be expected to step up his criticism as the campaign heats up.

In the interim, Bauman and Hanna can only wait patiently. They will find that in New Jersey politics, unfairness and irresponsibility are not always punishable acts.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.


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