This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the State Commission of Investigation, which was created by chapter 296 of the laws of 1968, on Sept. 4, 1968, to remain in effect until the end of 1974, and made permanent as embodied in N.J.S.A. 52: 9M-1 et. seq. Two of the four members of the commission are appointed by the governor, and one each by the president of the Senate and speaker of the General Assembly. Three of the four members must be an attorney, but none may hold public office or employment or have been a candidate for elective office within a year of appointment, and no more than two commissioners can belong to the same political party.
Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 52:9M-2, the commission conducts investigations into “organized crime and racketeering,” “the conduct of public officers and public employees,” “officers and employees of public corporations and authorities,” and with respect to “[a]ny matter concerning the public peace, public safety and public justice”—a broad mandate to serve as watchdog of government itself. The SCI is also charged with conducting investigations at the direction of the governor or Legislature concerning public entities, and to make recommendations for better enforcement of the laws.
Many attorneys know the SCI in the context of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Zicarelli v New Jersey Investigation Commission, 406 U.S. 472 (1972), which affirmed the New Jersey Supreme Court and held that testimonial, or “use plus fruits,” immunity is sufficient to satisfy the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination, as a result of which Joseph Zicarelli, an alleged crime boss in Bayonne, Hudson County, and others could not refuse to answer questions before the SCI because they did not receive “transactional” immunity, or immunity from prosecution. Although a technical distinction, and perhaps one of no significance to organized crime figures, witnesses could be incarcerated until they purged their civil contempt by providing desired testimony. Refusal to answer now may also constitute a crime.
Objections to the scope of immunity and other procedures of the SCI in its early years led to serious objections and reforms in its reenactment. Notice must now be given to the Attorney General, who can delay issuance of a report, and notice must also be given to individuals whose reputations could be deemed adversely affected by an SCI report so that they can be heard by the commission and file a statement as to their position. These changes have provided a greater public perception of fairness, and the SCI well survived the evaluation in 2000 of the commission required by legislation enacted in 1996.
As a unique public body which has had success in investigating subjects including government wrongdoing and racketeering, the SCI has reported on matters of public interest and recommended significant governmental initiatives. We applaud its accomplishments in its 50 years of existence, and underscore what we believe to be the most important of all: the SCI has reported on subjects which led to statutory, regulatory and administrative changes within government which have saved taxpayers millions of dollars in possible bureaucratic waste and mismanagement, and as a result of the SCI, our citizens have come to realize that there is a watchdog over public agencies otherwise immune from public scrutiny. However a public official or citizen cannot defend himself or herself from an SCI report as can be done in the adversary context following a complaint or indictment. We therefore hope and trust that the SCI will be sensitive to the reputations of subjects of its investigations in the conduct of its work.