This again - a move to make the New Jersey attorney general, the state's top law-enforcement official, an elected position.
The issue comes up every couple of years. Currently, the state attorney general is appointed by the governor. And admittedly, there are built-in problems with that system.
Appointed attorneys general are less likely to pursue cases or take positions that reflect poorly on the man or woman who appointed them. And Gov. Chris Christie's politicalization of virtually every aspect of state government, as well as any legal ramifications of the Bridgegate scandal, have only heightened such concerns. The recent turnover in the Attorney General's Office is also a problem - New Jersey has had seven attorneys general in the last 10 years, and the latest nominee is awaiting confirmation.
So there are some issues with having an appointed attorney general.
The problem is, the alternative is worse.
State Sen. Peter Barnes is sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would make the attorney general an elected office. Candidates would run at the same time as the governor and lieutenant governor and serve four-year terms.
The idea is that an elected attorney general would be more responsive to the public, more independent from the governor and more likely to take brave stands and pursue controversial investigations. But we don't buy it.
First of all, it is important to note that the New Jersey Constitution protects the independence of the appointed attorney general by forbidding the governor from firing him or her.
An elected attorney general, like every elected official, would do his or her job with one eye on the polls. Furthermore, he or she, like all elected officials, would be beholden to campaign contributors. Public sentiment and the need to raise campaign funds could affect decisions about what investigations to pursue, what indictments to seek, what cases to try.
As former Attorney General John Farmer Jr., who called the proposal "an abysmal idea," told The Star-Ledger, "When you empower somebody with the ability to take away people's freedom, no one should have to worry about what your motives are in prosecuting a case."
Yes, unfortunately the behavior of the Christie administration has generated legitimate concern about the current system. But electing the attorney general is no answer to those concerns. Better to focus on the people who are appointed to the position, and on the people who appoint them.