Gov. Chris Christie says he’s nearly ready to make new nominations to fill two state Supreme Court vacancies, one of which has persisted for more than two years.
The governor said Wednesday he had picked his two nominees before Hurricane Sandy diverted his attention and would name them “very soon.”
Christie said he’s been in touch with Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney for several weeks and keeping him informed to avoid “any surprises for him or for the Senate.”
The candidates seen as most likely by Trenton watchers are Camden County Superior Court Judge Lee Solomon and Board of Public Utilities president Robert Hanna.
Solomon and Hanna were formerly with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which Christie headed during all or part of their tenure. They have been members of his cabinet: Hanna as BPU president and Solomon as its former president.
Solomon is a Republican, while Hanna appears to be an Independent.
Solomon, of Haddonfield, graduated from Muhlenberg College in 1975 and Delaware Law School at Widener College in 1978.
Admitted in New Jersey in 1978, he spent several years as a solo practitioner in Haddon Heights handling personal-injury matters, and got started in government as a member of the Haddon Heights Borough Council from 1986 to 1994. He also was a Camden County freeholder for two years.
In 1991, Solomon was picked to serve the unexpired term of Assemblyman Thomas Shusted, R-Camden. The next year, he unsuccessfully ran for Congress against Democrat Robert Andrews.
Solomon was elected to a full two-year Assembly term in 1993, but lost his 1995 re-election bid to Louis Greenwald, who still holds the post.
While in the Assembly, Solomon spearheaded legislation that brought New Jersey’s trademark statutes in line with corresponding federal laws.
When he left office in 1996, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman nominated him as Camden County prosecutor. Democratic state Sens. John Adler and Wayne Bryant threatened to exercise senatorial courtesy to block him. Adler contended that Solomon lacked criminal law experience and wasn’t qualified, while Bryant implied that he was too politically connected for the job. Adler disputed reports that he and Bryant were mainly concerned that Solomon would use the post to investigate the Camden County Democratic Party.
Whitman nonetheless named Solomon acting prosecutor, though a year later he was installed permanently after Adler and Bryant relented.
Solomon spent six years in the office, where he became known for aggressively pursuing drug and gun cases, and improving the handling of domestic violence matters.
In May 2002, Christie — who had been U.S. attorney for five months and was revamping the office structure — brought on Solomon as a deputy to head the Trenton and Camden offices, placing him fourth in the chain of command.
In 2003, Solomon was considered a strong favorite to fill the seat vacated by U.S. District Judge Stephen Orlofsky in Camden. But he was passed over in favor of Mercer County Republican lawyer and lobbyist Peter Sheridan, a move that drew fire from southern New Jersey politicians who saw the seat as belonging to a more local candidate. Among the critics was Andrews, against whom Solomon had run in the congressional race a decade earlier.
Solomon nonetheless was bound for the bench. Appointed by Gov. Richard Codey, he took a spot in Camden County Superior Court in January 2006.
He left in February 2010 to head the BPU, but returned last December. He now sits in the Civil Part.
Solomon made a good showing in the Law Journal‘s most recent survey of Superior Court judges, published in September. He garnered an overall score of 8.86 on a 1-to-10 scale, tying him for fifth place among the 24 judges in the vicinage, who averaged 8.33.
Solomon’s highest scores were for lack of bias as to race, gender and party identity (9.25) and for courteous and respectful treatment of litigants and lawyers (9.14).
A ‘Careful’ Lawyer
Hanna, of Madison, graduated from Manhattan College in 1980 and Fordham University School of Law in 1984. He got his start as an associate at Cahill Gordon & Reindel in New York, handling commercial litigation.
He went to the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newarkin 1990 and moved to the Frauds Division in 1997, where he prosecuted white-collar criminal matters, including cases targeting alleged fraud at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
In May 2006, Hanna joined Gibbons as a partner in the Newark firm’s Criminal Defense Department, handling white-collar criminal and other matters.
Hanna joined the state Attorney General’s Office in January 2010, heading the Division of Law.
Christie named him BPU president last December, replacing Solomon.
Gibbons partner Lawrence Lustberg, who heads the Criminal Defense Department, says Hanna worked on “the most complex, sophisticated cases.”
“Bob would frequently jump in on those kinds of cases … because he had a strong background that included both criminal and civil,” Lustberg says.
Hanna is “a very, very careful lawyer” with “extremely good judgment,” he says. Lawyeringcomes down to “making the right decision. I would say that’s a genuine strength of Bob’s.”
Though his political affiliationisn’t clear, in 2009 he made a $300 donation to Christie’s inaugural committee, as well as two, $250 donations to Christie’s campaign, one each for the primary and general elections, according to an online database maintained by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.
New Jersey State Bar Association President Kevin McCann declines comment on Solomon and Hanna but says he’s eager to see the seats filled, regardless of party affiliation.
The court has been operating with five justices, with Appellate Division Judges Ariel Rodriguez and Mary Catherine Cuff temporarily assigned.
“My experience … with the court is, people put their political affiliation behind [them] when they get there,” McCann says. “From a philosophical point of view, there needs to be balance. From a Bar Association point of view, we just want justices.” •