Critiques of the Judiciary
New Jersey isn't the only state where most judges have political pasts. In every state, as in the federal courts, candidates in the political loop tend to win judicial appointments.
--Seth Andersen, Vice President, American Judicature Society
Political Donations Often Pave Way to Seat on The BenchKIBRET MARKOSApril 22, 2007
More than 80 percent of judges appointed to the bench in North Jersey in recent years have donated thousands of dollars to senators who held the fate of their candidacies, records show.
The practice is legal and has been followed for decades. Many judges, attorneys and senators strongly defend it, stressing that the selection process far from being a form of pay-to-play has produced an effective judiciary.
But others say it's an unfair means of choosing candidates for an institution looked upon as the bastion of fairness.
New Jersey courts aren't getting the most qualified candidates, they say, but rather the most qualified among a small pool of loyal insiders.
"Over the years, some very qualified people who aspire to go to the bench ask me how they could do it," said Barry Epstein, former president of the New Jersey State Bar Association. "I tell them, 'You have to find a senator to support your candidacy.'"
Several judges declined comment on the practice, referring questions to their supervisors.
Reached by phone, Bergen County's chief jurist, Assignment Judge Sybil Moses, declined comment.
"The selection of judges is strictly a legislative and executive determination," she said, before hanging up.
Passaic County Assignment Judge Robert Passero defended the selection process, discounting the need for a drastic change.
Judicial selection comes with a political aspect as long as judges are selected by senators and governors, Passero said. However, he noted that local and state bar associations as well as the governor's judicial advisory panel thoroughly vet candidates for competence.
"Somehow you need to get the attention of the governor and senators to put your name in play," he said. "But that doesn't guarantee you a slot.
"You still need the goods to be a judge."
Forty-nine judges were appointed to the bench the past decade in Bergen, Passaic, Morris and Hudson counties. Election records show that 40 of them or their law firms made repeated contributions to their local senators and other local candidates, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
The contributions were made prior to their swearing-in. State judicial guidelines prohibit judges from making political donations, participating in party functions or advocating a partisan cause after that.
In the five years before being appointed to the Bergen County bench in February 2006, Superior Court Judge Kenneth Slomienski donated more than $11,000 to various local Democrats, including state Sens. Paul Sarlo of Wood-Ridge and Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck.
Superior Court Judge Raymond Reddin of Passaic County donated more than $16,000 to local politicians, including Sen. John Girgenti, D-Hawthorne, in the five years before he was sworn in 2003.
Bergen County Family Court Judge William DeLorenzo Jr., who was sworn to the bench in 2002, donated more than $17,000 in the five previous years. Beneficiaries included Weinberg, who was an assemblywoman at the time, as well as the Democratic organizations in Bergen and Hudson counties.
Some judges have donation records dating back to the '80s. Others, in addition to financial contributions, served as campaign managers for senatorial campaigns or did legal work for their parties.
Judicial candidates go through a series of screening procedures before the state Senate gets to approve or reject them. Local senators hold the key during two phases of that process.
For one thing, senators are very often the ones who nominate them at the outset.
Later, no candidate's nomination can be presented to the full Senate until it is approved by his or her local senators. The process, known as "senatorial courtesy," grants them the power to veto a candidate without giving a reason.
Local senators insist that candidates' contributions play a minimal role at either stage.
"It is very likely that the people who come to the attention of the political system are people who participate in the political system," said Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a Cresskill Republican and a staunch advocate of senatorial courtesy. "But does that mean there is a quid pro quo? I would say no."
Andre Sayegh, Girgenti's chief of staff, agreed with a caveat.
"People have the right to contribute to any candidate they see fit," he said. "But considering the current climate, if there is a perception of pay-to-play, that could change in the future."
Weinberg, who joined the Senate in 2005, said she is currently supporting candidates who've never made contributions to her. She declined to name them because their nominations aren't yet official.
"Their contributions have nothing to do with my decision to support them," Weinberg said.
An informal practice in New Jersey allocates an equal number of spots on the state bench to Republicans and Democrats, Cardinale said. That makes a candidate's political background a factor.
He said he nonetheless has nominated and backed many candidates who never supported him. As an example, he cited Passaic County Superior Court Judge Marilyn Clark, whom he met at a seminar on child-abuse prevention and later nominated.
"I thought she had a fantastic grasp of the subject," he said. "I introduced myself, one thing led to another, and she is now a judge. She has never been involved politically."
Critics, however, say such nominations are extremely rare. The playing field is tilted against the not-so-politically active, they say, adding that it's no coincidence that some of the most frequent names on donor lists are those of lawyers who later became judges.
"It seems it has gotten harder for candidates of merit to be nominated," Epstein said. "There are some wonderful lawyers who probably would like to be judges but don't want to go through the political aspects of it."
Part of the problem, according to a 2001 report by the state bar association, is senatorial courtesy.
"Senatorial courtesy is a practice suited to serving the objectives of individual senators," the report reads. "Those objectives may or may not include appointment of the most qualified candidates for the bench."
Richard Weiner, a former president and current board member of the Bergen County Bar Association, agreed.
"We are fortunate to have good judges, but it's our hope that the political process does not take precedence over qualifications of the candidate," he said. "Our first objective is to get the best judges, irrespective of their political affiliation."
In The Political Loop
New Jersey isn't the only state where most judges have political pasts, said Seth Andersen, vice president of the American Judicature Society, a national association of judges and lawyers. In every state, as in the federal courts, candidates in the political loop tend to win judicial appointments, he said.
"No matter what system you choose whether you appoint your judges or elect them those people who end up becoming judges are lawyers who have some track record of political involvement," he said.
As an alternative, the organization recommends that states create a "merit selection system" in which judicial vacancies are publicly advertised and applications are accepted and reviewed without regard to political background.
"At its best, a merit system opens up avenues to the bench for more people, including those who have not been as politically active as others," Andersen said.
Such a system also helps diversify the bench by allowing more women and minorities to apply, he said.
Of the 413 judges in the Supreme Court, appellate courts and state Superior Courts in New Jersey, 108 are women and 51 are minorities. Fifteen states employ a merit system, Andersen said.
The New Jersey State Bar Association report recommended a similar system six years ago, calling for a statewide committee to gather names of candidates independent of politics and submit them to the governor.
"Unfortunately, for that to happen, the senators would have to give up some of their control," Epstein said. "And the reality is that they don't want to do it."
* * * * *
Filling The Bench
How Superior Court judges are selected:
- Local senators recommend candidates to governor's judicial advisory panel.
- Panel reviews candidates for qualification; state police do criminal background checks.
- Local bar association interviews/screens candidates and forwards names to the state bar, which does its own review.
- Governor announces "intent to nominate."
- Local senators individually approve or disapprove of each candidate (known as "senatorial courtesy").
- Governor officially nominates candidates.
- Senate Judiciary Committee reviews, then endorses or rejects nominees.
- Full Senate votes to approve/reject nominees.
- Governor signs approval.
Superior Court judges in New Jersey are initially sworn-in for seven years. They must be re-nominated and confirmed by the Legislature for a second time to obtain lifetime tenure.Copyright 2007, North Jersey Media Group, Inc.
From: The Record, North Jersey, April 22, 2007, http://www.northjersey.com/..., accessed April 23, 2007. Kibret Markos can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C.
§ 107for a non-profit educational purpose.
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