By Matt Rooney
New Jersey is unique in a number of different ways (not that you needed me to tell you that). Some ways are good. Some… less so.
One notable example (I’ll let you decide whether it’s bad or good): a distinct lack of democracy in the legal arena.
43 other states directly elect their state attorney generals; New Jersey is one of only five states where the governor appoints this powerful official.
We’re also one of only seven states with no judicial elections.
I wonder how much longer that’s going to last given the current trajectory of things.
This month, not one but two New Jersey trial level judges were pushed off the bench after making controversial comments in separate sexual assault cases. One of the judges cited a defendant’s “good family” in consideration of a rape charge. The other reportedly asked an alleged rape victim whether she had tried to ‘close her legs’ during the course of the assault.
Adding to the controversy: legislators injected themselves into the judicial disciplinary process and demanded that the judges be sacked. Press releases, media statements, proposed legislation… the whole familiar show.
Not everyone agreed that that was the correct approach (even if you believe the aforementioned judges’ comments were disgusting/inappropriate/objectionable).
“People have argued for years in Jersey that judges should not be elected as they are in other states because people could influence judicial decisions,” opined our good friend Bill Spadea of NJ 101.5 and Chasing New. “You mean exactly what the pols are doing now? Irresponsible news reporting failing to even broach the subject of context designed for click bait by only showing one side and essentially drawing a conclusion of guilt for the judges. Well not all of us are influenced by emotion. Some of us want to hear all sides and certainly value the independence of the judiciary.”
The election question raised by Bill is a fair one. If legislators are going to politicize judges’ decisions and intervene in the disciplinary process, for reasons good, bad or in between, then shouldn’t we just elect them? And let the people have the final say rather than politicians navigating a ‘trial by media’ environment unchecked? Is there an argument for cutting out the middle man?
Again, the entire purpose of appointing (rather than electing) judges is supposedly to alleviate them from potentially coercive political pressures. Oops.
The N.J. Supreme Court itself isn’t helping notwithstanding Chief Justice Stuart Rabner’s clear concern over legislative intervention in his branch’s affairs. Ironic? You bet. Our state’s high court long ago deviated from simply interpreting the law to actively crafting policy, acting like a legislature and executive all rolled into one, on issues ranging from school funding to affordable housing. Unelected judges aren’t concerning until they start acting like unelected legislators.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal provides an arguably even more obvious and uncontroversial conundrum for our current appointment system.
As the Garden States’s appointed top law enforcement officer, Grewal has spent most of his energy filing lawsuits against the Trump Administration and spearheading the dangerous ‘sanctuary statehood’ experiment. He maintains a separate Twitter account (like elected politicians do) where he routinely shares his political opinions (spoiler alert: they’re predominately far-left). He’s even created an AG logo for himself. It’s 100% clear to those watching him and around him that Grewal is running for office, in 2025 or sooner.
If the AG is going to run his office like a politician, then shouldn’t he also subject himself to the people’s direct judgment at the ballot box? Like any other politician?
The prospect of electing an attorney general and judges may excite or horrify you. As an attorney, I understand both sides’ respective arguments.
What is inarguable: for good or for ill, our current crop of leaders’ behavior is pushing us closer to electing New Jersey’s leading legal officials like most of the rest of the country.
MATT ROONEY is a 30-something practicing New Jersey attorney, A+ panelist on Chasing News with Bill Spadea, and the founder and blogger-in-chief of Save Jersey.