The Burlington County Bar Association has passed a resolution urging the Governor’s office as well as the State Senate to set aside their differences with respect to the appointment and reappointment of judges. The Bar Association implores the Governor and Senate to carry out their responsibilities considering only the qualifications of sitting and prospective judges without regard to political gain; renews their commitment to support the administration of justice in the State by educating the public on the critical importance of an independent judiciary; and acknowledges the extraordinary contributions made by Justice Helen Hoens to the administration of justice in the State.
The issue of judicial independence is of incredible importance to the citizens of this state and it is something that many people outside of the legal field may not fully appreciate. New Jersey has one of the most respected judiciaries in the country and we are one of only four states that appoint our judges. Most other states require an election and the very lawyers that appear before a judge donate money to their campaigns. In New Jersey, a judge cannot accept as much as a glass of soda at a social event if it is paid for by an attorney.
When the Governor proposes a judicial candidate (or judge for reappointment), the person is vetted by the New Jersey State Bar Association, and the New Jersey State Police. When that process is complete, their name is presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee for a consideration. If they are appointed they serve for seven years and then the Governor nominate them for tenure and the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing. In the past, at the end of those seven years, if the judge has shown themself to be honest and capable, they are reappointed with lifetime tenure. (However there is mandatory retirement at 70). In the last several years, judge’s reappointments have not been based on competence, their judicial demeanor, or the recommendation of the New Jersey State Bar Association, but rather politics.
After an attorney has given up their law practice, or quit their job to become a judge, it is easy to imagine the pressure they will feel if their reappointment is based on political gamesmanship rather than competence. Imagine a situation where a wealthy political donor has a case in front of a non- tenured judge, or a difficult issue comes up in criminal court which should be decided in the favor a defendant, but will be unpopular with the public.
Judges should be free to decide cases on the application of the law to the facts at hand without looking over their shoulder and fearing for their jobs. As the New Jersey Law Journal recently opined in an editorial, judicial independence is the most important issue for our judiciary and our bar since the adoption of the 1947 constitution.
If you have any questions please feel free to contact, Katherine Hartman, Esquire, President of the Burlington County Bar Association, 856-393-6073