Home>Feature>More than 100 nominees await confirmation to state posts with little hope of votes before November

NJ Senate chamber. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

More than 100 nominees await confirmation to state posts with little hope of votes before November

An overwhelming majority, including top politicos, await courtesy sign-offs

By Nikita Biryukov, July 16 2021 3:50 pm

More than 100 nominees to a slew of state boards, commissions, authorities and other panels are awaiting confirmation that won’t come until after November’s general election, and an overwhelming majority will likely wait far longer.

The nominees themselves range widely and include a number of notable figures in New Jersey politics. The positions they’ve been put up for share a similar breadth, ranging from panels with no rule-making powers to ones responsible for disbursing hundreds of millions of dollars in development projects.

All told, there are 127 nominees awaiting confirmation before the upper chamber, according to a New Jersey Globe analysis of nominations data, though 25 of them are recent additions, having been named in May or June of 2021. Four of those nominees are awaiting confirmations to Superior Court, workers compensation or administrative law judgeships.

The legislature is on its customary summer break — one historically broken only in case of an emergency — and lawmakers aren’t expected to return to the statehouse until after this year’s general election, which will see the governorship and all 120 seats in the legislature put on the ballot.

Leaders in the Senate plan to advance as many of those nominations as possible during the lame duck session.

“We’ll move a lot,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) told the New Jersey Globe. “We moved a lot the last couple of months.”

The Senate confirmed or reconfirmed 54 Superior Court judges in the first six months of the year, including 38 in June alone. The chamber was on pace to seat more judges this year than at any point since 1998, but the four-month recess may balloon the number of court vacancies back to record highs before lawmakers reconvene in November.

Confirmations for would-be members of state boards and commissions may run into other hurdles.

Just 24 of the nominees have secured sign-offs from senators in their home counties and submitted all the necessary paperwork, according to a list of pending nominations maintained by the governor’s office.

Any nominees who aren’t approved before the start of the next legislative session will see their nominations expire. That won’t mean much if Gov. Phil Murphy wins another term, though Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli would likely have different picks.

In any case, many of the nominees have been awaiting approval for more than a year.

Kevin Walsh, the acting state comptroller, has been waiting for his nomination to move for 536 days. New Jersey Policy Perspective President Brandon McKoy’s nomination to the New Jersey Task Force on Wages and Benefits has been stalled for exactly a year as of Friday.

He’s not sure why.

“I don’t know how much of the lack of movement is because of the pandemic and things got challenging and difficult or otherwise. I really don’t even know how to evaluate that,” McKoy told the New Jersey Globe. “Maybe I’ll get another call about it being reupped.”

McKoy was also nominated to the post in the previous legislative sessions. Nominations that aren’t acted upon before Jan. 11, 2022, will expire.

It’s unclear why McKoy’s nomination, which is not among the 24 that are ready for advancement, has stalled. Most often, it’s an issue of senatorial courtesy, the unwritten rule that allows senators to indefinitely block gubernatorial nominations from their home counties or legislative districts without giving a reason.

State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrenceville), the only senator with courtesy over nominees from Trenton, where McKoy is a resident, told the New Jersey Globe she had approved his nomination.

Other nominees are less in the dark about their circumstances.

New Jersey Democratic State Committee Vice Chair Peg Schaffer’s nomination to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority has been awaiting a courtesy sign off from State Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Washington) for 162 days, a little more than half of the 280 days the 127 nominees have waited on average.

“He wants a judge that the governor does not want to give him. He’ll give him a judge, but he doesn’t want to give him the judge, from what I understand,” Schaffer said. “I understand there’s something he wants from the administration that he’s not getting, so he’s actually blocking every nomination in his district. It’s got nothing to do with me.”

Scutari confirmed that was the case. Doherty did not immediately return a call seeking comment made Friday morning.

Schaffer has long desired a Democratic Senator from Somerset County that would allow her to exert pressure on nominations in the county, though she expressed a desire for some changes to the system, including ones limiting the practice for judges and confining it to senators’ home counties, as it was before New Jersey adopted its 40-district map in 1973.

“I don’t think the senators should be able to dictate who the judges should be,” Schaffer said. “That’s sort of up to the Bar Association and the governor.”

But that’s frequently what happens. Courtesy can set off a daisy-chain of deal making that often requires approval from multiple lawmakers in the upper chamber, giving each of them their own chance to extract a pound of flesh. Sometimes, that takes form of another nominee that sends the process back to square one.

There is a workaround, but it’s an intrusive one. Nominees can simply move to a town where they can secure senatorial approvals. That also works in reverse — nominees may find themselves blocked by courtesy after a move.

That’s what happened to acting Commissioner of Education Angelica Allen-McMillan, whose move to Cedar Grove gave State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa) say-so over her nomination. She’s still waiting for that to come.

Courtesy isn’t going anywhere. Because the rule is unwritten, its fate ultimately lies with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), who is unlikely to nix what is arguably the greatest source of individual power afforded to most members of the Senate.

Murphy isn’t angling to end the practice either. In May, he called it “a rightful element of a balance of power” between the branches of New Jersey’s government despite the frustration it can cause.

A spokesperson for the governor declined to comment for this article.

Scutari, the only other member of the Senate apart from Sweeney who can block nominations without invoking courtesy, is in a similar place.

“We go through this a lot, every couple of years, but it’s still a process by which I believe in. Our confirmation process is second to none, and the courtesy, we generally work through it,” he said, adding that the practice makes Trenton more bipartisan by lending power to the minority party.

Still, some of the stalled nominees have won all their sign-offs and still been kept waiting.

Patricia Teffenhart, a senior vice president at the New Jersey of Commerce who previously headed the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, has been awaiting confirmation to the New Jersey Advisory Commission on the Status of Women for 487 days.

Her nomination is ready to move, having won approvals from State Sens. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) and Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver), but it hasn’t. The five other nominees put up for a spot on the commission on March 16, 2020, aren’t cleared to advance through the Senate.

Teffenhart did not return calls seeking comment first made Thursday.

The Advisory Commission on the Status of Women has no rule-making powers, instead acting as an advisory body to the New Jersey Division on Women. That means confirmations for posts on the commission are less strenuous.

Put another way: Nominees to the commission are unlikely to be grilled, or even interviewed, during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

There’s also a question of diversity. Men are vastly overrepresented on state boards and commissions. Men account for 65 of the 127 stalled nominations. Even so, confirming all 124 individuals nominated to state boards, commissions and similar panels would increase gender parity on those bodies.

There is a silver lining. Some of nominees already hold their posts and are awaiting reconfirmation with months or more remaining in their terms. Others, namely individuals tapped to lead state agencies, are in their posts in an acting capacity that does nothing to diminish their authority.

The only difference for the latter group is their names will appear with an asterisk in Fitzgerald’s Legislative Manual.

Nominations 16 July 2021 v1
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