A primer on gravitas-filled Arthur J. Sills, the respected founder of Peter Verniero’s law firm, Sills Cummis & Gross and for a time one of the New Jersey’s most powerful political insiders.
After Harvard Law School, Sills went to work for David Wilentz, the boss of the Middlesex County Democratic machine who won national fame as state attorney general when he prosecuted the kidnapper and killer of the Lindbergh baby. From 1950 to 1962, he was a partner at Wilentz, Goldman, Spitzer & Sills.
As a young attorney, Sills became friends with a Trenton lawyer named Richard Hughes. The way the story goes, Sills told Hughes that he would make a great governor someday, and Hughes, not taking the comment entirely seriously, said that if he ever won, Sills would need to be his attorney general. Nearly two decades later, when Democratic bosses picked him to run for governor, they tried to tell him who his attorney general would be. Hughes made it clear he had already promised the job to someone else.
After Hughes was elected governor in 1961, he appointed Sills to serve as Attorney General, a post he held for the entire eight years of Hughes’ governorship. He held the post longer than any attorney general under the current State Constitution.
Sills faces some controversies as attorney general.
* In 1967, state Human Affairs Commissioner Paul Ylvisaker told investigators for a the U.S. Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee looking at the 1967 Plainfield riots that the decision to keep local police officers out of a State Police/National Guard search of houses for stolen weapons was hatched in the governor’s office with Hugh and Sills present. They were also criticized for a decision to conduct the search without a warrant, and for releasing residents arrested during the riots to go free to avoid another uprising.
* At Sills’ direction, the New Jersey State Police began compiling dossiers on people involved in the Newark riots. That was later extended to others involved in political demonstrations in 1968. The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the policy after the ACLU sued the state but ordered some controls.
* Hughes vetoed a bill passed by the Republican-controlled New Jersey Legislature in 1968 giving active and reserve military officers an exemption from paying tolls on the Garden State Parkway. The Legislature voted to override the veto, causing bondholders to file a lawsuit. Sills thought the bill was unconstitutional, so he simply didn’t answer the lawsuit and a judge invalidated the legislation.
* In 1969, he fired assistant attorney general William Brennan III, the son of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, as head of an anti-crime unit after he told a group of journalists that a group of New Jersey legislators were “entirely too comfortable with organized crime.”
* Also in 1969, Attorney General Sills caught some flack for serving as a moderator at a Woodbridge Democratic Club debate between two candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Despite some blips, Sills was popular in Trenton and was widely praised for his progressive stands on key civil rights issues. Some Democrats, included Hughes and the Middlesex County Democrats, wanted Sills to run for governor in 1969. He thought about it, at least for a while, and demurred.
When Hughes’ second term ended in January 1970, Sills joined a Perth Amboy firm that became known as Sills, Garretson, Levine and Gocelack. But in December, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of the firm because of a conflict: Robert Levine was the Perth Amboy city attorney while Eugene Gocelack was a city councilman.
After the dissolution of his firm, he joined a Newark law firm that became Sills, Beck, Cummis, Radin and Tischman.
Sills became campaign manager for Frank Guarini, a state senator from Jersey City who was challenging two-term U.S. Senator Harrison Williams in the 1970 Democratic primary. A little more than a week before the primary, Williams disclosed that he was a recovering alcoholic. That was no secret to most voters: in 1968, after Williams showed up drunk at an NAACP meeting, the organization voted to censure him.
Sills went after the incumbent Senator, calling him a “frail vessel” and saying Williams’ alcoholism would put New Jersey’s Senate seat “at risk.”
Williams beat Guarini in the primary by 90,647 votes, 66%-34%. He defeated Republican State Chairman Nelson Gross in the general by 254,048 votes, 54%-42%.
After New Jersey legalized casino gambling in Atlantic City, Sills became counsel to Bally’s Park Place. The firm pumped money into Democratic campaigns, and Sills’ partner, Clive Cummis, a Democratic power in his own right, did most of the casino work.
In 1981, Sills was a lawyer for Rep. Jim Florio, the Democratic nominee for governor who faced a recount against Republican Tom Kean, a former Assembly Speaker. Kean won by just 1,797 votes statewide out of more than 2.3 million cast.
Sills contracted polio as a child and became friends with President Franklin Roosevelt after meeting him when they were at Warm Springs, Georgia together for treatment.
He passed away in 1982 at age 65 following a stroke.