The Atlantic County Bar Association and state Sen.-elect Chris Brown in November announced they had created a bipartisan panel to review and recommend candidates for judicial and administrative appointments.
Under New Jersey law and political custom, state senators recommend judges, then the governor nominates them and the state Senate confirms them. Brown said he is looking forward to having the “advice and counsel” of the Judicial Candidate Review Committee.
This sounded like an effort to dial back the politics of judicial appointments — until the next day, when the County Republicans criticized a Superior Court nomination by Democrats and said the Judicial Candidate Review Committee was created in part to avoid making such nominations. That makes us wonder if the bipartisan panel isn’t itself mostly a political effort.
The late state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, submitted Sarah Beth Johnson’s name to the state director of appointments in June 2016 as a candidate for Superior Court judge. Johnson, a graduate of Brown University and a cum laude graduate of Pepperdine University School of Law, is a partner in the Fox Rothschild firm.
She also is the daughter of Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson and the wife of Colin Bell, who lost to Brown in November’s state Senate race in the 2nd District.
Democrats selected Bell to serve the remainder of Whelan’s term and when he advanced Whelan’s nomination of Johnson, county GOP Chairman Keith Davis jumped at the chance to accuse him of “nepotism and self-dealing.”
Perhaps county Republicans believe people have forgotten that judicial nominations have long been heavily political, with the two main parties dividing up the appointments between them.
They had no problem with such conflicts when the brother of former Assemblyman Frank Blee was named a Superior Court judge in 2012. Even in 2008, when the wife of the Atlantic County Democratic Party chairman was nominated to the court, Republicans didn’t complain about her political connection, but questioned whether she had sufficient trial experience.
Senators routinely use their senatorial courtesy — the custom of letting them advance or block a nomination — to ensure their party’s preferred candidates get approved. In 2010, for example, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, held up a Republican appointment to the state Parole Board until a Democratic prosecutor was nominated.
That year we suggested senatorial courtesy was “an archaic, anti-democratic practice that should have been abandoned decades ago.” We still support that if a way can be found to ensure judicial candidates are chosen on their merits and one party doesn’t come to dominate the judiciary as a result. Electing judges is obviously not the answer, since that just politicizes justice more.
The Judicial Candidate Review Committee may be a step in the right direction, but note that Brown isn’t calling for an end to senatorial courtesy or giving it up himself. Time will tell whether the committee is an improvement over the current practice. Playing politics with the Johnson nomination is not a good sign.