New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. Photo: Carmen Natale/ALM

Returning to what many in the profession said was an important tradition, Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey State Bar Association have executed an agreement that provides for county bar associations to have a formal role in evaluating potential judicial and prosecutorial nominees.

Murphy signed the Hughes Compact, under which New Jersey governors have historically agreed to withhold nominations of judges, justices and prosecutors until the organization’s Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee deems them qualified.

Unlike the revised version implemented under former Gov. Chris Christie, the latest version of the compact brings county bar associations back into the fold, a copy of the document obtained by the Law Journal indicates. It also changes JPAC’s makeup, with an apparent aim to increase geographic as well as racial and ethnic diversity.

The compact, dated March 12, provides that JPAC’s membership “shall include at least one representative from each county in New Jersey and at least three additional members representing underrepresented segments of the legal profession.”

The agreement also provides that JPAC “will contact the County Bar Association Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee (“County Committee”) from the candidate’s home county” and “provide a copy of the candidate questionnaire to the County Committee, which will interview the candidate and provide a recommendation of the County Committee to the State JPAC concerning the qualifications of the candidate.”

The compact also requires JPAC to “make every effort” to make a recommendation within 20 days, and prohibits disclosing evaluations to anyone outside the governor’s office.

“The NJSBA is grateful that Gov. Murphy has signed the Hughes Compact, a tradition that dates back to Gov. Richard Hughes,” Bar President Robert Hille said in a statement. “The NJSAB is honored to play a nonpartisan role in the review of judicial and prosecutorial candidates and ensure qualified candidates are selected to serve New Jersey residents.”

Hille, who also signed the compact, added: “We are especially pleased that this updated compact brings the county bars back into the process and also expands the Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee to include members from underrepresented groups in the legal profession. This is an important day for the state bar, the legal community and the public at large.”

A Murphy spokesman declined to comment Tuesday.

In 2010, Christie, newly elected, revised the compact. That version allowed the state bar to continue in its evaluative role, but said county bars could not get prospective nominees’ confidential questionnaires or perform due diligence.

Francine Aster, president of the Essex County Bar Association, the state’s largest county bar, said by phone that the organization’s leadership is “all in favor” of returning local input to the evaluation process. “What better than to have somebody local vet” a nominee, said Aster, a family law solo in Verona.

Before 2010, the county bars’ role was written into the agreement. The one signed in 2006 by then-Gov. Jon Corzine, for example, provided that the state bar’s JPAC “will contact the County Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee … by providing a copy of the candidate questionnaire and seeking the recommendation of the County Committee concerning the qualifications of the candidate.”

An earlier departure from the Hughes Compact—or from adherence to its terms, at least—came in 1999, when then-Gov. Christine Whitman’s Supreme Court nominee, Peter Verniero, yielded an unqualified rating from JPAC, but Whitman went ahead with his nomination anyway. Verniero, who ultimately was confirmed, at the time received significant scrutiny for what some called his lack of experience and for the racial profiling scandal at the State Police, which had been under Verniero’s aegis during his time as Whitman’s attorney general.

The compact bears the name of former New Jersey Gov.—and, later, Supreme Court Chief Justice—Richard J. Hughes, who in 1969 first executed the compact providing for bar association input on nominees.

Michael Booth contributed to this report.