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Thomas Comer. (Photo: Joey Fox for the New Jersey Globe).

Six new judges confirmed by Senate as mountain of judicial vacancies looms

One Superior Court nominee, Thomas Comer, criticized for social media posts

By Joey Fox, August 08 2022 4:33 pm

The State Senate confirmed six new state-level judges today, representing another step towards addressing the state’s judicial vacancy backlog – but not a large enough one to fully counteract the rate at which older judges are leaving the bench.

Four of the six new judges – Thomas Comer, Naazneen Khan, Frank Testa (the cousin of State Sen. Michael Testa), and Jeffrey Wilson – will sit on the Superior Court, where the judicial vacancy crisis is most acute with 63 seats currently vacant. The other two were Kimberley Wilson, confirmed to be an Administrative Law Judge, and Neme Akunne, who will be a judge in the Division of Workers’ Compensation.

All six judges were approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee just hours before they came to the Senate floor. Five were unanimous, but State Sens. Nellie Pou (D-North Haledon) and Troy Singleton (D-Delran) abstained on Comer, with Pou citing Comer’s social media posts as the reason for her abstention.

“Without getting into the specifics, I find that some of your statements were quite concerning,” Pou said. “The statement [spoke to] perhaps a lack of judgment, and that’s difficult for me to say, given the fact that you are such an experienced person in your profession.”

Neither Pou nor Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) clarified what Comer’s controversial statements were, and an initial review of Comer’s Facebook page did not turn up anything obviously inflammatory.

Curiously, two more Superior Court nominees who have the requisite senatorial courtesy lined up did not move today, and will have to wait until a future Judiciary Committee meeting to advance. Senate Judiciary Chair Brian Stack (D-Union City) said he wasn’t sure what caused Christopher Edwards and Juliana Blackburn to be omitted from today’s list.

A large number of other judicial nominees have been submitted by Gov. Phil Murphy but are still in the process of meeting with senators and obtaining courtesy. And even if every nominee were confirmed today, there would still be a large number of vacant Superior Court seats left over.

That’s not to mention the three openings on the seven-member Supreme Court, an extraordinary situation that has hobbled the state’s highest court. Across the three seats, Murphy has put forward only one nominee, Rachel Wainer Apter, whose nomination has been blocked by State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) for a year and a half; it appears that none of the three seats will be filled until a deal on all three is reached.

Scutari said that the Supreme Court remains a high priority for him even though no nominees moved today, and that he’s open to bringing the Senate back again later this month.

“We’re working on it,” he said. “My office is in contact with the governor’s office, and we’re hopeful that there will be some resolution to that soon.”

Asked whether he’d consider revoking senatorial courtesy, the factor behind Wainer Apter’s delay (and thus the entire three-seat logjam), Scutari said “probably not.”

The Senate also confirmed two other nominees of note today: acting Atlantic County Prosecutor William Reynolds for a full term in the role he already holds and Zenon Christodoulou, the vice chairman of the Somerset County Democratic Party, as a member of the Board of Public Utilities.

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