How to become a Judge

Kevin O'Toole, former senator from the 40th Legislative District, advises current and future politicians to have the courage to surround yourself with strong staff that are willing to stand up and tell you when you are wrong. Otherwise, they risk becoming disconnected from reality.

“The Governor shall nominate and appoint, with the advice and consent of the Senate, the Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, the Judges of the Superior Court, and the judges of the inferior courts with jurisdiction extending to more than one municipality; except that upon the abolition of the juvenile and domestic relations courts or family court and county district courts as provided by law, the judges of those former courts shall become the Judges of the Superior Court without nomination by the governor or confirmation by the Senate.”

That’s Article 6 section 6 of the New Jersey Constitution and it outlines the power to appoint judges to the executive branch with co-equal commitment by the legislature to advise and consent.

Now let’s talk about what really happens: I firmly believe that New Jersey has some of the finest Judges.  Either because of the process, or in spite of it, most of the judges are amazingly committed, professional, exceedingly underpaid (their net pay is LESS today than 10 years ago) and do incredibly hard work.  During my years as chair of a county party and assemblyman, I have forwarded many resumes and names of aspiring candidates, some made it to the robing ceremony, and some didn’t.  Since 1995 I have had the honor of playing a part in helping hundreds of candidates as they seek their dream job.  However, it was not until I arrived in the Senate chambers that I comprehended the full power and responsibility of the Senate and its overwhelming power to truly MAKE (or not) judges.

Here’s the process:

  • A resume finds its way or is forwarded by a political entity (Senator usually works best) to the Governor’s Office (Chief Counsel) – and the modern day Hunger Games begin. Amongst hundreds (literally) of resumes sits yours (you are what I call “now in the pipeline”).  There are only so many slots for Superior Court (463 to be exact) statewide, and there may be only a handful of vacancies at any one time.  Each county is given an allotment and that number is statutorily required to be evenly split among both major political parties.  This clause is sacred and rarely violated, and then usually only by Acting Governors (yes both a Democrat and Republican acting Governor ignored this pesky little clause).
  • Back at the Governor’s office, the resume will eventually be reviewed, examined and vetted.  After sufficient time (don’t ask me to quantify that and it helps if the candidate has a strong minded power or legislator pushing) a lengthy questionnaire is forwarded and filled out.
  • After some time, (I had one highly qualified candidate wait 4 years) an interview with counsel’s office is scheduled.  If you make it past that state, the next round of vetting includes sitting with what then Governor Corzine’s office labeled one of the “Wise Men” (actually this group includes experienced retired judges and seasoned lawyers and yes women are included).  A candidate is posed hypotheticals to see if he or she has the right “judicial” temperament.
    Other components of the background (now it is getting serious) involves a State Police 4-way background check, which includes talking to your neighbors, co-workers, examing tax history, and host of other really invasive but appropriate measures.  Be forewarned, think twice before you cut that overhanging tree branch from your obnoxious neighbor’s yard, be kind to staff (I have a whole article dedicated to treating staff coming), treat adversaries well, keep credit card debt under control, and on and on.  Everything in this process is open for review and “judgement” by others.
  • This review is followed by a medical exam, although I really don’t know why.  Are we really not going to appoint someone because they have a medical condition or disease?  Sounds problematic but I leave that debate to fee-shift-seeking Plaintiff lawyers who specialize in labor and employment matters.

After this is all done, we hurry up and wait.

The slow tortoise-like pace of the actual notice of intent and nomination is often a killer.

  • Once nominated, the candidate is expected to meet with members of the Senate Judiciary (I make the effort to have as many face to face interviews as possible, including with a majority of the present Supreme Court). Few Senators have that time, although the current Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Nick Scutari, to his credit, meets with all candidates.

By in large, after reviewing a candidate’s resume most Senators do not feel the need for individual interviews. If invited to a meeting with a Senator, be prepared to talk about your skill set and ambition. And, as in one case, (happened to be with future Chief Justice) you might have to wait outside a locked front door for a sometime while TV cameras roll-I digress.

Somewhere between steps 2 and 3 you should also reach out to your home county Senators or political forces to seek a meeting. You’ll never get to the next stage until all parties are on-board with your judicial candidacy-that means battling and surviving the attack of the monstrous multi-dimensional political hydra called Senatorial Courtesy—which will be the entire focus of a future article.

The actual hearing –

  • Now you’re at the day of your hearing, which by and large, is a simple and straight forward experience. Unless of course your last name is Kwon or Harris (topic for another day).

Get there early and be prepared, have a brief opening statement and be ready to give short and responsive answers to questions. The process moves quickly as there is usually a lot of activity beyond the actual hearing. Hint – drag the kids and spouse or mom and dad out, it is so much harder to do a beat down or rejection in front of crying parents and hyperactive kids.

So, there it is, InsiderNJ – that is the process involved in becoming a judge. Of course, the above could serve  as an outline that malicious politicians could use to point the finger elsewhere when he or she doesn’t want to own up to the failure to get this life changing appointment done.

Below are some random thoughts on this process—

  • Keep your sponsoring Senator in the loop during the various stages
  • Remember, in most instances, I’m not your friend, pen pal, or psychiatrist but let me give some advice-keep an even keel about the process – don’t get too excited or too depressed. The process is nerve wracking but usually works out.
    Once a judge, don’t forget how humble you were in the process and stay that way.
  • Remember you didn’t take a test-you knew someone, you were political, or in extremely rare circumstances, you might actually have gone there totally on your own merit.
  • Consistent with the edict from former Chief Justice Wilentz, once confirmed, you are allowed to speak to legislators.
  • If you want to be a Judge—get to know your Senator and be persistent
  • Once a judge, don’t do something stupid. In this day and age, everything is on the record.
    While wearing the black robe, please treat every case with care – remember the litigants and (sometimes) lawyers are scared and have a lot on the line.
  • If really in trouble, break glass and find the whereabouts of David Anderson.*  I can probably help you if the Yankees are still in Spring training.
  • Act normal and go about your life as if the visions of being a Judge are not dancing in your head.

Little known facts:

  • Governor Corzine actually failed to reappoint more judges than Governor Christie.
  • It was under Governor McGreevey that Justice Verniero was told to walk the plank as he would NOT get tenure (silence from legal community then was rather interesting).

Last hint – Don’t close down your practice or quit current job until you are voted on by the Senate.  Believe it or not, this has actually happened more times than I wish to recount, in one instance it actually happened prior to even a notice of intent being filed.  Stay in your current job until you get your new one!

For the last three decades, I have had front seats watching the formation of our State’s Judiciary.  I intend to stay active and will offer to coach aspiring judicial candidates and will offer my services and insights to those judges who are facing a potentially rocky tenure hearing.

PS – Associate Justice Anne Patterson was by far the most impressive candidate that I ever interviewed.  She had instant recall to every case she ever worked AND, even more impressive, each of her adversaries (and I called lmcgreawyers in Chicago, Houston and New York) stated that she was the single most prepared lawyer and courteous that they ever faced.

The worst interview was…forget it…

Kevin O’Toole is the Republican state senator from the 40th Legislative District and sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Read Senator O’Toole’s first Insider NJ column, My Life in Politics, here.

*David Anderson was the state employee who for over 40 years ran the AOC. During that time he was solely responsible for this judiciary process, he invented it. Seventy-five percent of the seated judges owe him a small debt of gratitude.

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