Gov. Phil Murphy will nominate Anthony R. Suarez to serve as a Superior Court Judge today, marking a complete and total vindication of the Ridgefield mayor who was charged as part of a probe by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie and then acquitted by a federal jury.
Suarez is one of nine judicial nominees being sent to the Senate by Murphy today, along with Brick Mayor John Ducey and Thomas Sarlo, the brother of State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge).
Murphy will also nominate Union City attorney Susanne Lavelle, which could force Democratic leaders to deal with the issue of senatorial courtesy in Hudson County. State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) has been out of the Senate since June, dealing with cognitive health issues, and now has a court-appointed legal guardian after a Superior Court judge found her unable to manage her personal affairs. It’s not clear if Cunningham will lose courtesy on Lavelle and Port Authority commissioner-designee Joe Kelley as a result of her health issues.
Christie critics believed the charges against Suarez were politically motivated. Suarez was part of a sting operation involving a cooperating witness, Solomon Dwek. Suarez held the support of his hometown and remained the mayor. He wrote a book about his experiences: Politically Indicted.
The New Jersey Bar Association’s Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee (JPAC) approved Suarez as qualified for the bench on Friday, clearing his way to move through the Senate as part of a package of Bergen County judges.
Ducey’s expected nomination to the Superior Court will create a hotly-contested race for mayor of Brick this year. Ducey was a popular mayor in a heavily Republican town, winning re-election in 2021 with 63% of the vote and carrying an all-Democratic council across the finish line. A quick confirmation will set up a special election for mayor in November.
Sarlo is a Little Ferry councilman who has represented several municipalities. He’s ready to become a judge about a decade after turning down Christie’s offer to nominate him.
Also being nominated to the bench are three Bergen county lawyers; Nick Ostuni, a senior assistant Bergen County prosecutor; Marc Ramundo, who heads a Palisades Park law firm; and Amy Lefkowitz, an attorney who practices in Garfield. Murphy is also filling two Union County seats: Gavin Handwerker, a counsel at State Sen. Jon Bramnick’s law firm, and Chanel Hudson, an associate at Pashman, Stein, Walder and Hayden and a former public defender, in Union County.
There are currently 67 vacancies on the Superior Court, a number which will soon increase to 69 thanks to two more retirements. The Senate Judiciary Committee met today, but it interviewed just one Superior Court nominee: David Nitti, who will likely be confirmed by the full Senate later this week.
Not counting Nitti or the nine nominations soon to be officially announced, there are only eight Superior Court nominees currently pending hearings, plus another six nominees to judgeships outside the Superior Court. That means the majority of judicial vacancies in the state don’t have a nominee set to fill them.
The Senate has confirmed 38 new Superior Court judges this legislative session, as well as two new justices of the Supreme Court, which is still down a member. Murphy said earlier this month that he had “no news to make” on the status of the remaining Supreme Court seat, which has been open since last July.
This story was updated at 4:21 p.m. with a correction: eight Superior Court nominees and six non-Superior Court nominees are pending, not seven and seven, and 38 new Superior Court judges have been confirmed this legislative session.