Chris Christie in Ft. Lee, NJ
Chris Christie in Ft. Lee, NJ (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

Democrats in the New Jersey Senate were caucusing late Monday in preparation for what would probably be the last voting session for the summer when Republican Gov. Chris Christie delivered a bombshell: He was withdrawing eight Superior Court nominees for Essex County that he had announced only days earlier.

The nominations were supposed to be a start toward filling the 22 vacancies in the busiest vicinage in the state, with some of those vacancies dating back years.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said the letter gave no explanation, but it was clear to the caucus why the names were being withdrawn. Only a short time earlier, Scutari had announced that the confirmation hearings for the judges would be delayed until July 10 because a witness who wanted to testify against one of the nominees wasn’t aware of Monday’s hearing and still wanted a chance to appear, and that angered Christie.

Christie spoke briefly about his decision Tuesday at a town hall meeting in Caldwell, and blamed the Democrats on the judiciary committee.

“I think a deal is a deal,” The Star-Ledger quoted him as saying. “They renege on a deal, there’s no deal.”

That deal apparently was three months in the making and now it is unclear as to what will happen going forward—whether Christie will resubmit the nominations or whether the nominees should just plan on staying with their current jobs.

The nominees were Jeffrey Beacham, of Florham Park’s McGivney & Kluger; Linda Lordi Cavanaugh, the Berkeley Heights Township administrator; David Cohen, the director of the Office of Employee Relations in the governor’s office; former Department of Banking and Insurance Commissioner Neil Jasey; Newark Municipal Court Judge Bahir Kamil; Deputy Attorney General Marysol Rosero; Richard Sules, of Stockschlaeder, McDonald & Sules in New York; and West Caldwell solo Marcella Matos Wilson.

It was the Cohen nomination that caused the problem. The witness who wanted to testify, Mariella Morales, had worked in the employee relations office and alleged improprieties related to grant applications.

Morales, who ultimately resigned, met with Cohen and Matthew McDermott, the lieutenant governor’s former chief of staff, to discuss the allegations, said senators during Monday’s voting session. She is not alleging any misconduct by Cohen himself, they said.

Scutari said he decided to delay confirmation hearings for all of the eight candidates because they were a package deal, rather than just delay Cohen’s hearing.

“I didn’t want it to be seen as breaking the agreement,” he said Wednesday.

Scutari said he believes he acted properly.

“The committee’s vetting process must be upheld regardless of any agreements between local senators and the executive branch,” he said. “No agreement will trump our investigative work. We still have an obligation to vet nominees.”

Scutari, a Linden solo, said he is hopeful that Christie will reconsider.

“I hope that when he calms down he’ll come back to the table,” he said.

The Essex delegation’s sole Republican, Sen. Kevin O’Toole, said the majority’s action to hold up the nominations was “shameful and disgraceful.”

“They were sitting there for hours and never got their day,” said O’Toole, of Verona’s O’Toole Fernandez Weiner Van Lieu. “They put their law practices on hold and then they’re told they’ll have to wait.

“The agreement was derailed at the last minute and I don’t know why,” he said. “I don’t think anything’s going to happen now.”

Sen. Richard Codey, the ranking Democratic member of the Essex delegation, said he was “shocked” by Christie’s decision to pull the nominations.

“I’m really upset for these candidates,” he said, adding that Essex Democrats and Republicans worked with the governor’s office for three months before agreeing on the eight-candidate slate.

“It’s incomprehensible why anyone would do this,” Codey said. “Now everything’s up in the air.”

Ronald Rice, another Democratic senator from Essex, said Christie’s actions “really took me back.”

Rice, however, is hopeful that Christie will change his mind and resubmit the nominations.

“He’s a lawyer. I think he realizes how bad the situation is in Essex,” Rice said. “Right now he’s just being the governor. When he starts thinking like an attorney I think he’ll realize how much we need these judges.”

Thomas Quinn, the immediate past president of the Essex County Bar Association, said he, too, isn’t sure what happened but hopes the situation will be resolved.

“I thought we had broken the logjam,” said Quinn, of the Florham Park office of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Decker. “It seems that politics is at play again.”

The Essex vicinage should have 57 judges. Because of the vacancies, the judiciary is using retired judges on recall and has transferred some judges from other vicinages.

But Quinn said that is not an adequate solution.

“I’ve had attorneys in divorce cases telling me they’ve had four different judges in cases that have lasted three years,” he said. “That’s never a good thing.”

“I’m hoping cooler heads will prevail and that they will just get the deal resurrected,” Quinn said. “The situation in Essex County has been deteriorating for years.”

Essex County Assignment Judge Patricia Costello issued a brief statement: “I have confidence that the governor, the Senate President [Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester] and the legislature will be able to work through their problem and restore the functional abilities of the Essex judiciary for the benefit of litigants, lawyers and Essex County,” she said. “It’s a very difficult process.”

The administration is not saying what will happen.

“The judicial package did not go forward as we had planned,” said Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the governor. “Time now needs to be taken to consider how we proceed.” •

Contact the reporter at mbooth@alm.com.