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Regardless of whether New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero is impeached, censured, disciplined or none of the above, his days in office may be numbered. The events of last week made it clear that he has no friends in the Statehouse, in the Legislature, in the public opinion polls or in the candidates for governor, one of whom will likely be in office in 2006 when Verniero’s seven-year term expires and he seeks tenure. New Jersey’s Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously called on Acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco to ask for his resignation and DiFrancesco acceded. The record, he said, indicated that Verniero “withheld information relevant to profiling from the Justice Department. And it clearly demonstrates that he was less than forthright and open with the Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings.” On Friday, Assemblyman William Payne, D-Essex, introduced a resolution calling for an investigation of whether Verniero misled the committee or withheld information from the federal government. If Verniero is found to have committed perjury or obstruction of justice, impeachment becomes palpable, perhaps inevitable. DiFrancesco said Thursday that if he is elected governor and Verniero survives this crisis, he would not put his name forward for tenure. The two other leading candidates for governor — Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, a Republican, and Woodbridge Mayor James McGreevey, a Democrat — also have called on Verniero to resign. Even the supreme court appeared to be wavering. The Star-Ledger of Newark on Thursday quoted one supreme court justice, who was not identified, as saying the other members of the court support Verniero and believe he had been “savaged.” Later, though, the court as a body backed off, saying in a statement: “The New Jersey Supreme Court has issued no statement or taken any position on the matter before the Senate Judiciary Committee that involves Justice Peter Verniero. The Court will not comment on this matter now or in the future.” At present, though, there is little DiFrancesco or the Senate can do besides request that Verniero voluntarily give up his position. And that left lawyers around the Statehouse feverishly researching what might be the next step if Verniero continues to be intransigent and refuses to leave office. For his part, Verniero last Thursday flatly rebuffed any suggestion that he leave a job he has held for less than two years. “My testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee — both in April and May 1999, and in March 2001 — was truthful,” he wrote. “I intend to remain focused on my duties as a member of the Supreme Court and shall continue to discharge those duties with diligence, fairness and integrity.” Verniero said that in his testimony, he “misled no one. … During my service as Attorney General, I tried to deal as responsibly as possible with the issue of racial profiling, an issue that has bedeviled successive administrations and law enforcement agencies in this state for more than 20 years. “Against this backdrop — truthfulness and diligent discharge of my duties and responsibilities as Attorney General — resignation from my current position is not warranted.” DiFrancesco said that if Verniero did not resign, he would ask the state Senate to consider a resolution of censure. “It’s a black mark,” said DiFrancesco. “This is meant to send a message to Justice Verniero.” As other legislators vowed to move ahead with impeachment proceedings if Verniero refused to resign, they and everyone else seemed to be at sea over how to impeach a sitting supreme court justice for offenses committed while holding another office. The state constitution contemplates nunc pro tunc impeachment. Article VII, �3, says public officials can be impeached “while in office and for two years thereafter.” The penalty for conviction would then be “disqualification to hold and enjoy any public office of honor, profit or trust in this State,” including a judgeship. Another unclear issue is when the two-year clock starts running. Verniero’s last day as attorney general was May 15, 1999. Does that mean the Assembly would have to pass articles of impeachment within the next month? Or, since Verniero still holds office, albeit not the one in which the purportedly impeachable offenses occurred, can he be impeached at any time? With the possible one-month deadline in mind, Payne introduced his resolution Friday. In order for it to be acted on, Assembly Speaker Jack Collins, R-Salem, would have to call the Assembly back in for a special session so Payne could introduce the legislation, and another special session would have to be called for the Assembly to act on it. Articles of impeachment must be approved by a majority of members. DiFrancesco said he spoke with Collins on Thursday, but Collins has had nothing to say thus far about the possibility of impeachment. The Legislature traditionally takes off the months of April and May so that its budget committee’s can devote themselves to preparing a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Collins was away from his office Thursday and was unavailable for comment. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman William Gormley, R-Atlantic, already has met with Assembly Majority Leader Paul DiGaetano, R-Passaic, to discuss options. DiGaetano is set to take over as speaker if the Republicans continue to control the Assembly after the November elections. A two-thirds vote in the Senate is necessary to find a public official guilty of an impeachable offense. DiFrancesco said he would preside over any impeachment trial; the constitution provides that the chief justice preside over such a trial only when the governor has been impeached. As to the mechanics of how an impeachment trial would proceed, DiFrancesco had few answers. “This has never been done before here,” he said. Aside from what little the constitution says, “all we have to look to is the federal government.” One other judge has been convicted after being impeached. In 1934, the Senate convicted Passaic County Court of Common Pleas Judge William Harley of charges he used $25,000 in campaign contributions to, in effect, buy a seat on the bench. The second option being discussed if Verniero refuses to resign is an attempt to have the court remove him from office by filing ethics complaints against him and having him found guilty of violating the Canons of Judicial Ethics or the Rules of Professional Conduct. “We haven’t discussed that as a committee, but it’s a possibility,” says Senate Judiciary Committee member Gary Furnari, D-Essex. “That’s one of the options that’s been laid out to us” by the Office of Legislative Services, adds another member, Sen. Norman Robertson, R-Passaic. Both say that while pursuing an ethics complaint is a possibility, the committee will not consider what options to pursue until it concludes its hearings into racial profiling this week. “We said we would have a final report with recommendations by the end of the month, so we still have a couple of weeks,” says Robertson. Again, the question lawyers are trying to answer is whether Verniero could be removed from the bench for actions that occurred before he put on his black robe. “The same logic applies here as it does to impeachment,” one of the lawyers says. “If he lied to get this job, should he not be held liable under the Code of Judicial Conduct?” No justice has ever been removed from the bench, although lower court judges have been. A lawyer knowledgeable about the process says the matter would likely be handed over to the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, which would conduct a trial of its own as a fact finder, then make a recommendation to the court as to what punishment, if any, is warranted. There also is speculation as to who on the Court would recuse himself or herself if the matter got that far. Besides Verniero and Poritz, Jaynee LaVecchia, Virginia Long, James Coleman Jr. and James Zazzali are Whitman appointees. The lawyer says that if any judge recuses himself or herself, senior Appellate Division judges likely would be called to fill any gaps to ensure there is a seven-member court. Verniero’s nomination was approved by the minimum 21 votes in May 1999. Aides to Republicans who supported Verniero — including Gormley and DiFrancesco — say they feel personally betrayed because, under pressure from Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, they agreed to support his nomination, even though they had reservations because of his age and relative inexperience. Verniero became the youngest justice in state history at age 39 and, when nominated, had been practicing for less than 11 years. He was confirmed despite a determination of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Committee on Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments that he was not qualified for the job.

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