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U.S. Supreme Court. Photo by John Brighenti.

U.S. Supreme Court to hear case on state judicial appointments

Potential impact to New Jersey, including redistricting

By David Wildstein, December 07 2019 6:20 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to determine if states can consider party affiliation of judges as a requirement for appointment, a move that could have significance in New Jersey where partisan registration is considered in the judicial nomination process.

The case challenges a Delaware constitutional requirement of a parity in judicial appointments between Democrats and Republicans.  No one political party can have more than a bare majority of seats.

An independent who had sought a judgeship alleged that the state constitutional provision violated his First Amendment rights.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in April that the Delaware Constitution effectively limits service on state courts to members of the two major political parties.

John Carney, the Democratic governor of Delaware, has appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

If the Supreme Court upholds the appellate ruling, it could affect New Jersey’s long tradition of a Noah’s Ark system of judicial nominations.

State law provides that “all appointments to such judgeships shall be made in such manner that the appointees shall be, as nearly as possible, in equal numbers, members of different political parties, so as to constitute the county court in any such county bipartisan in character.”

It could more likely affect appointments to other government entities with similar partisan balance requirements, like county election and tax boards, the State Commission of Investigation, and some independent authorities.

A ruling striking down the Delaware constitutional provision could potentially affect how New Jersey draws legislative and congressional districts.  The state Constitution gives appointments to the reapportionment and redistricting commissions just to political party leaders, although the tie-breaker appointed by the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The appellate judge who wrote the opinion was Julio M. Fuentes, a former Newark Municipal Court Judge who spent thirteen years as a Superior Court Judge in Essex before President Bill Clinton named him to the Third Circuit in 2000.

Fuentes, a Democrat, was appointed to the bench by Republican Gov. Thomas Kean as part of a 1987 deal with Democratic senators from Essex County on judicial appointments.

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