It was only a matter of time before it came to this. One state senator accused another of pressuring yet a third to “sign off” on a pending judicial nomination so a separate renomination of two sitting judges would proceed. At the chief justice’s request, the Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, working with the Office of Attorney Ethics, investigated the allegations and found no evidence to substantiate any wrongdoing.
The allegations went something like this: An Essex County senator who is a lawyer called the county assignment judge to discuss another senator’s decision to hold up one of the governor’s nominations to the bench. In this conversation, the senator allegedly directed the assignment judge to contact two sitting, untenured judges and to ask them to urge the recalcitrant senator to release the governor’s nominee in exchange for their own renominations for tenured positions. Get it? Political blackmail with the assignment judge delivering the ransom note.
After interviewing a number of witnesses and reviewing documentary evidence, the ACJC and OAE concluded that, although the senator called the assignment judge, there was no evidence that the latter was asked to pressure anyone to sign off on any pending nomination or to engage in any other improper action or that any such impropriety occurred at all. The mere fact of a senator calling the assignment judge to discuss the judicial selection process was not improper “but rather consistent with the past and present practice of the three branches of government in respect of judicial reappointments,” the investigators concluded. The Supreme Court accepted that finding and conclusion, which ends the matter.
We can’t help believing that the only reason this matter arose was because of the odious practice of senatorial courtesy, which allows a single senator to block a pending gubernatorial appointment for any reason or no reason at all. We have condemned this practice many times before and do so again here.
Senatorial courtesy does nothing but encourage mischief, cynicism and legislative delay, not to mention the havoc it unleashes on the careers of the many qualified nominees caught in its grip. If legislative leaders themselves cannot muster the will to end senatorial courtesy, then perhaps it is time for voters to consider banning the practice by constitutional amendment.
Of course, it would take an act of the Legislature to place the question on the ballot, but perhaps these unfounded Essex County allegations — and the unseemly (albeit untrue) images they invoked in this most recent instance — will finally spur action. We can only hope.
Board members Virginia Long and Edwin Stern recused from this editorial.