State Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Oxford) will likely be leaving the State Senate early next year to become Warren County Surrogate, depriving the chamber of its most stalwart conservative – and leaving a spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee, among the most consequential committees in the legislature, open for the taking.
Though Doherty still has to win a general election this November to succeed the late former surrogate Kevin O’Neill, that’s something of a foregone conclusion in the strongly Republican county. The presumptive successor for his Senate seat is former Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt, but there’s no guarantee Steinhardt would automatically fill Doherty’s committee spots.
The other three Republican seats on the committee, which has say over every Senate-confirmed gubernatorial nominee (including judges, prosecutors, and cabinet positions), are filled by State Sens. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa), Anthony M. Bucco (R-Boonton), and Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield). That leaves 12 senators, presumably including Steinhardt, for Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho (R-Franklin) to choose among.
Asked today whether they’d be interested in joining the committee, State Sens. Ed Durr (R-Logan) and Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton) both said that they would happily accept a seat but that they figured others might be ahead of them in line.
“If anybody wants to consider me for it, I’d obviously be interested, but we have a lot of other people with a lot of experience,” Stanfield said.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to it, if I was asked – I would be honored to be on the committee – but I think there’s plenty of people before me who will have the opportunity to fill that seat,” Durr said, noting that he doesn’t have a background in law or law enforcement.
No South Jersey Republicans serve on the committee at the moment, something Oroho may try to address. In addition to Durr and Stanfield, the South Jersey delegation also includes State Sen. Mike Testa (R-Vineland), who was on the committee prior to this session, and State Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Egg Harbor), as well as three Ocean County senators who seem less likely to seek the seat.
Polistina is among the most moderate members of the Republican caucus, which may lower his chances of joining Judiciary, since it already includes one moderate Republican in Bramnick. Polistina and Bramnick were two of only three Republican senators to vote for Attorney General Matt Platkin’s confirmation last week.
Elsewhere in the state, State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) might be a possibility, and Steinhardt could be as well once he joins the body. State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver) is already the Republican Budget Officer, so he may not want to take on an additional major responsibility.
Stainhardt hasn’t said what seats he’d like if and when he arrives in the legislature. The two other legislators recently elected to fill unexpired terms, State Sen. Renee Burgess (D-Irvington) and Assemblyman Alex Sauickie (R-Jackson), both took the committee seats their predecessors once held.
Doherty is currently the ranking member on Judiciary, a position he’ll likely hand off to Corrado. Corrado will soon be the only Republican on the committee to have served on it prior to this session; Bucco and Bramnick were both added at the beginning of the year after Testa departed and State Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Branchburg) retired.
Ultimately, Republicans have little power to actually sway committee votes, since their four seats are outnumbered by Democrats’ seven. In practice, the main way the minority party is able to halt nominations is through senatorial courtesy.
But in a legislature that often grants minority party legislators little chance to gain prominence or power, the Judiciary Committee gives Republican senators the ability to directly question gubernatorial nominees and put themselves in the spotlight – an enticing prospect for the many ambitious members of the Republican caucus.