Home>Governor>Use of senatorial courtesy once had more risk than it does today

Assemblyman Lee Laskin (R-Cherry Hill) in Trenton in 1968. Ace Alagna collection courtesy of the Monsignor William Noé Field Archives & Special Collections Center, Seton Hall University Libraries, South Orange.

Use of senatorial courtesy once had more risk than it does today

In 1991, a GOP senator who wouldn’t sign off on George Norcross’ father lost despite massive red wave that year

By David Wildstein, July 14 2022 2:38 pm

The use of senatorial courtesy, which has been around since 1844, comes with some political risk, though not as much as it did in an era when the old print media covered the New Jersey Legislature in a more impactful way.

In 1988, Republican Gov. Thomas Kean named George E. Norcross to the New Jersey State Racing Commission.  Norcross was the president of the Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO.

State Sen. Lee Laskin (R-Cherry Hill) used senatorial courtesy to block Norcross from being confirmed by the State Senate.

His son, George E. Norcross III, became Camden County Democratic Chairman in 1989, enabling the family to extract their revenge on Laskin.

Voter anger towards Gov. Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase made 1991 the most lopsided Republican landslide since 1920 when Warren Harding’s coattails led Assembly Republicans to capture 39 of 40 seats in the lower house.

Republicans picked up ten Senate seats, winning in some unlikely places.

But in the suburban 6th district where Laskin was seeking re-election to a fifth term, the results became an outlier.

Democrats spent nearly $2 million on the race – a record-setting amount for a State Senate race in those days.  George Norcross III guaranteed a $250,000 loan for the effort.

Laskin was savaged by Philadelphia network TV ads that attacked his ethics.  The ads ran during an Eagles game on Monday Night Football, and during Game 7 of the World Series.

Democrat John Adler (D-Cherry Hill) beat Laskin by 6,098 votes, 55%-45%.  Republican Assemblyman John Rocco (D-Cherry Hill) and his running mate, Camden County Freeholder Lee Solomon (R-Haddon Heights)– now an associate justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court – won by over 7,000 votes

State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Demarest), who over time became a master of senatorial courtesy, almost lost his bid for re-election to a second term in 1983 after he blocked the renomination of a sitting state appellate court judge, Sylvia Pressler.

Cardinale was no fan of Pressler, the first woman to serve in the appellate division and the judge in a case that opened up Little League Baseball to girls.  He accused her of ordering the release of patients from a state psychiatric hospital against the advice of doctors, and for upholding a relatively short two-month jail sentence for a man who raped his 13-year-old stepdaughter.

Lawyers, women’s groups, and The (Bergen) Record hammered Cardinale.

Kean’s chief counsel, Cary Edwards, said that Cardinale had told him the real reason he was blocking Pressler was that she had been the judge in cases he was personally involved in and that he didn’t like her.  Cardinale later denied that.  (The matter caused a deep rift between Cardinale and Edwards, who had served together as Republican assemblymen from Bergen County.  In 1989, they ran against each other in the GOP gubernatorial primary).

Eventually, Senate President Carmen Orechio (D-Nutley) decided that Cardinale was conflicted on Pressler’s nomination and effectively waived courtesy on her nomination.  Had Orechio not stepped in, Pressler would have been off the bench since there are no holdovers in the judiciary.

Cardinale, who would go on to serve nearly 40 years in the Senate, won his second term with just 51% of the vote.

When the Senate voted on Pressler in December, her nomination was approved, 29-2, with just Cardinale and State Sen. Louis Bassano (R-Union) voting against her.  Edwards’ ex-running mate, State Sen. Garret Hagedorn (R-Midland Park), voted to confirm Pressler.

In 1993, Senate Majority Leader John Dorsey (R-Boonton) was defeated for re-election in part because of his decision to use senatorial courtesy to block the reappointment of Superior Court Judge Marianne Espinosa Murphy.  At the time, she was the wife of former Morris County Prosecutor and gubernatorial candidate Michael Murphy.

Acting Attorney General Fred DeVesa and Espinosa Murphy filed a lawsuit against Dorsey and Senate Republicans in a bid to end senatorial courtesy, one of several that have been filed over the years without success.

The Superior Court judge who presided over the case, Philip Carchman, blasted the practice but declined to declare it unconstitutional because he didn’t have jurisdiction.

“The exercise of senatorial courtesy in this context does undermine the right of the people to open government, and the independence of the judiciary,” Carchman wrote at the time.  “The doctrine of senatorial courtesy serves no public purpose.”

Senate President Donald DiFrancesco (R-Scotch Plains) was no fan of Dorsey – the two had faced off in a fierce leadership fight after Republicans took control of the Senate in 1991 – and wound up changing the unwritten rules of senatorial courtesy to prevent its use when a sitting judge is up for reappointment.

Dorsey had other political problems, but his use of courtesy against Espinosa Murphy contributed to his loss of a solidly Republican Senate seat in 1993.  Former Assemblyman Gordon MacInnes unseated him by 355 votes.

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