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The Mitchell H. Cohen Federal Courthouse in Camden, New Jersey. (Photo: U.S. Courts.)

How New Jersey almost had two U.S. Attorneys following close 2001 vote

Split of federal judiciary might have changed the course of Chris Christie’s career

By David Wildstein, April 25 2021 7:51 pm

As New Jersey prepares for a new U.S. Attorney and the filling of U.S. District Court Judge vacancies, there has been no talk of renewing a 20-year-old plan to break up the 21-county District of New Jersey and give South Jersey their own federal prosecutor and judges.

In 2001, U.S. Senators Bob Torricelli and Jon Corzine and Reps. Rob Andrews (D-Haddon Heights) and Jim Saxton (R-Mount Holly) proposed a divorce of sorts, with two U.S. Attorney’s two U.S. Marshals and federal judges that would be specifically assigned to South Jersey.

That would have removed a big part of the state out the jurisdiction of U.S. Attorney, Christopher Christie, who had not yet been nominated by President George W. Bush. That might have changed the future governor’s political trajectory.

The new District of South Jersey was geographically ambiguous.  While it included the traditional view of South Jersey – Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties – it would have also added Mercer, Monmouth, Ocean, Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren counties.

New Jersey’s federal judges held a vote in March 2001 on the proposal and it passed by a narrow 10-9 margin.

Six U.S. District Court judges who sat in Camden County voted in favor of splitting the state in two; they were joined by four judges sitting in Newark: Dennis Cavanaugh, Katherine Hayden, Nicholas Politan and William Walls.

Six additional judges assigned to the Newark federal courthouse – William Bassler, John Bissell, Dickinson Debevoise, Faith Hochberg, John Lifland, and Alfred Wolin – voted against creating a new federal court district.  They were joined by the three judges sitting in Trenton: Garrett Brown, Mary Cooper and Anne Thompson.   Three judges – Harold Ackerman, Joseph Greenaway and Alfred Lechner – did not vote.

The plan to split up the District of New Jersey was defeated in September 2001, when the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judicial Council voted 10-11 to retain just one U.S. Attorney and federal bench.

Had the measure been approved, it would have possibly taken Christie out of a statewide role for the seven years he served as New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor.  Cases like Solomon Dwek, Operation Big Rig, former State Sen. Wayne Bryan (D-Lawnside) and the prosecution of the 2007 plot to attack Fort Dix might have wound up under the jurisdiction of another U.S. Attorney.

Democratic powerhouse George Norcross might have played an outsized role in selecting a U.S. Attorney for the District of South Jersey – most certainly after Democrats regained the White House in 2008.

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