On August 26, Acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck announced criminal charges against Passaic County Surrogate Bernice Toledo, accusing her of improperly granting the executorship of an estate to a political ally. Toledo, who already planned not to seek re-election in 2021, immediately faced calls to resign from office.
Yet three weeks later, Toledo is still in office, seemingly content to ride out the rest of her term until it expires in January. And no one in state government seems entirely sure what to do about it.
County surrogate is both an elected and a judicial position, and according to Pete McAleer, a spokesman for the judiciary, “the Supreme Court has the authority to suspend with or without pay anyone in a judicial position accused of committing a criminal offense.” Toledo is also subject to a formal complaint from the state Supreme Court’s advisory committee on judicial conduct.
But the complaint was first filed in December 2019 and still has not been acted on, and the judiciary has made no apparent moves to remove Toledo since the attorney general’s announcement – a possible sign that they believe they are unable to do so.
According to John Donnadio, the executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, there may not be any recourse the state can take until Toledo’s term is over, although Toledo’s decision not to seek re-election makes matters less urgent.
“I think the practical consequence of this all is that she has said she’s not running for office,” Donnadio said. “She’s entitled to the due process of the law – because what if she’s found not guilty? I think we’ve got to let that play out.”
Donnadio believed that impeachment may be an option, but the New Jersey Constitution does not explicitly mention the possibility of impeachment for county officeholders, instead reserving the measure for state executives and judges of the Supreme Court and Superior Court.
So far, Toledo herself is defiant. Dennis Carletta, Toledo’s attorney, said in a statement that Toledo maintains her innocence.
“The charges against Surrogate Toledo are entirely baseless,” Carletta said. “We ask there be no rush to judgment, as we look forward to her complete exoneration of the pending allegations.”
Regardless of whether or not Toledo is eventually found guilty, it seems that no one is keen on “rushing to judgment” and removing Toledo against her will. So while Toledo may be out of a job – and possibly facing a prison sentence – come 2022, the next four months in office are most likely hers for the keeping.