By Kip Bateman | The Save Jersey Blog
Our state and our nation have arrived at a very dangerous place, where partisanship trumps all, including common sense and decency.
This incivility between the political parties now threatens the independence of our judiciary, and puts the very functioning of our courts at risk.
At both the state and federal levels, we have chief executives who have nominated justices to our supreme courts, and recalcitrant leaders in our senates who have refused to allow those legislative bodies to perform their constitutional duties of advice and consent.
The vacancy on the Supreme Court of the United States was created by the recent, sudden passing of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.
As is both his right and his constitutional duty, President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland, a judge of the United States Court of Appeals, to fill that vacancy on our nation’s highest court.
Republicans, the majority party in the United States Senate, have indicated their unwillingness, however, to confirm any nominee that might shift the nation’s top court to the left prior to the November presidential election.
Here in the Garden State, a vacancy on the New Jersey Supreme Court was created in 2010 following Governor Chris Christie’s decision to deny tenure to Associate Justice John E. Wallace, Jr.
Although his decision not to renominate Justice Wallace represented a break from tradition, it was within the Governor’s rights under our state constitution to deny tenure and make a new nomination.
Judge David Bauman of the New Jersey Superior Court was recently renominated to fill that vacancy.
Democrats, the majority party in the the New Jersey Senate, have refused for six years to allow a confirmation hearing to fill Justice Wallace’s empty seat, citing their desire to prevent a shift of the state’s top court to the right prior to the next gubernatorial election.
To recap, we have Republicans in Washington blocking the president’s nominee, and Democrats in Trenton blocking the governor’s nominee.
The arguments made by each for obstruction are identical, and none have disputed the actual qualifications of either Judge Garland or Judge Bauman to serve.
This stonewalling is about partisan politics, not good government.
My concern as a long-serving member of the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee and as an attorney is with keeping our state’s courtrooms fully staffed with competent and qualifed jurists, as our residents need and deserve.
It’s our committee’s job to consider judicial nominations, which includes interviews, legal reviews, hearings and testimony, concluding with a vote on the nominee. None of this has occurred for Judge Bauman.
The dangerous partisan gamesmanship is now overflowing to the state’s lower courts, where vacancies are piling up and a raft of judges are awaiting the renominations and reconfirmations they will require to continue working.
New Jersey residents depend on those judges in an array of state courts to consider some of their most important proceedings, including criminal and civil trials, divorces, child custody hearings, and property and business disputes.
When a parent is at risk of losing a child, or a family their home, the ability of our courts to consider their matter in a timely fashion is critical.
While the public generally may care little about the ideological tilt of our state’s top court, many will be directly and negatively impacted when the lower courts that handle most legal proceedings lose the capacity to function effectively.
That is precisely where we are headed with more than 40 current judicial vacancies and the possibility of another two dozen empty courtrooms if the dispute over Judge Bauman is not resolved quickly.
Some of our judges have just weeks left on their terms before their courtrooms will be forced to go dark and our judicial system grinds even closer to a halt.
We can only hope that some will recognize the parallel failures to approve judicial nominations that are occurring simultaneously in Washington, D.C. and Trenton as a sign that our politics have gone too far.
For the good of our state and nation, all judicial nominees deserve the opportunity to be confirmed if they are qualified to serve.