Senatorial Courtesy and The Loch Ness Monster

Kevin O'Toole, former senator from the 40th Legislative District, says that being a public servant in NJ was an honor, he does not miss being in Trenton's political arena.

It’s incredible that after 22 years in the Legislature and 6 years as a staffer, July 2nd will mark 3 years out of the Legislature for me. To say retirement from elected life is enjoyable would be an understatement. Although it would have made my time in the Legislature far more pleasant if I could have avoided 3 hours in the car for a 20-minute committee meeting and instead participated on Zoom from my kitchen table.

I’ve found these columns a useful venue to discuss issues that you can’t, or won’t, when your name is on the ballot. So, let’s talk about the greatest unwritten power in the Legislature – Senatorial Courtesy.

Senatorial Courtesy, much like the Loch Ness Monster, gathers huddled masses to discuss its presence, but it is rarely seen.

I have had the unique experience of having served in the New Jersey Senate during two separate tenures (2001-2002 & 2008-2017), the former in the Majority and the latter in the Minority. First, let me state something that might seem illogical, but in reality is a great truth – if you truly want to be a power player in the Senate you are actually better off serving in the Minority with a Governor of the opposite party. I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out.

If you are in the Majority and your Senate President and your Governor want some appointment, you can probably wrangle something for your “sign off,” but chances are the larger deal is hashed at the adult table and you are, with rare exception, moored to the kid’s table.

The New Jersey Constitution affords the Legislature the coveted status of being a co-equal branch of government. Like my time in the Senate, I also served two separate terms in the New Jersey Assembly (1996-2001 & 2002- 2008), again the former in the Majority and the latter in the Minority. While I adored my time in the lower house, service in the Senate was a far greater joy for me and one of the most thrilling periods in my public life, with the exception of my current role.

How does Senatorial Courtesy work?

Each senator has courtesy over appointments originating in his/her district AND (here is the big one) any nomination from within their home county. By way of example, when I was in the Senate during my last term, I had courtesy over every one of the 22 towns in Essex and those towns I represented in Passaic, Morris and Bergen Counties – a pretty big piece of real estate.

What does that mean? Any appointment that requires Senate confirmation must have the Senators from the nominee’s hometown and county “sign off” on the confirmation. In some cases, like Bergen and Essex, that could involve four or more Senators. In Essex, during my time, you had to thread the needle of four Democrat Senators (Gill, Rice, Codey & Ruiz) before getting to my doorstep.

There is an actual process, some say ancient ritual, that have staff asking the Senators, or top staff, if “sign off” can occur. As Kenny Rogers sang – this is where the dealin’s done.

Of the 40 Senators in New Jersey, I know some that use this unwritten practice like an art form, some treat it like cod fish oil – a necessary lubricant for certain aliments – and some that almost never use it.

In my day, I was known to occasionally dabble with this courtesy practice and here are some of the lessons I learned:

1) Never discuss a direct trade – this for that – unless you like being in the company of the Attorney General or U.S. Attorney;

2) Never sign off on any appointment without researching background of the nominee;

3) When discussing your wish list for appointments think bold AND big;

4) Make sure that your appointments well represent your district (diversity and intellect are two big things to consider);

5) Hold firm on sign offs until your appointments are made;

6) Don’t go for the Wimpy (think Popeye) offer of a sign off today for a future appointment later;

7) Think about working with other Senators to lock down sign offs until appropriate attention is given elsewhere (think like a team);

8) Nurture a close collaborative relationship with the Judiciary Chair (Chairman Scutari was the best I dealt with and he taught me that sometimes you have to pay the ferry driver twice); and

9) Understand that in the Senate universe, the Senate President is the first and last stop. It is the most powerful position by design and Senate President Sweeney works the levers and pulleys better than anyone in my memory.

We could spend a lot of time talking about this, but then again no one really talks about the Lock Ness Monster.

PS: If you’ve ever heard the suburban legend that there was a 50% vacancy of judges in the Essex Vicinage because a certain Senator refused to sign off on a Republican nominee for the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, then you’ve spotted the Loch Ness Monster.

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  • Elliott Ruga

    Senator, as a member of the public and a registered Government Affairs Agent (Policy Director, NJ Highlands Coalition), I am astonished how effectively senatorial courtesy can cripple an Administration’s implementation of policies, especially if it is employed by a Senator whose district includes a densely populated county, such as Essex. Last year Governor Murphy nominated 3 individuals to serve on the Highlands Council. One of them is a citizen of Newark. Six Senators had the power to block her appointment. We thought the Republican Senators, Corrado and Pennachio might wield their courtesy prerogatives because of the Highlands Act’s unpopularity across that party. By they signed off right away. It was Senators Rice and Gill who held, and continue to hold the nominee, along with the other 14 individuals from Essex County the Governor nominated to various boards, commissions and judge-ships. Why would Murphy consider appointing anyone from Essex County ever again if they can’t be confirmed? It is in Newark and suburban Essex’s best interest, and for many reasons, that this individual be confirmed. But Rice and Gill are blocking her, as well as the nominees for the bi-state Gateway Commission, North Jersey District Water Supply Authority, the Pinelands Commission, etc. Why are they being blocked? Because of intra-Essex County political squabble that has more to do with senatorial ego than any policy concerns. Senatorial courtesy is unique to New Jersey–there is a Congressional senatorial courtesy, but it means something entirely different. It makes some sense in the state whose executive has greater power than in other states, to better balance the co-equal branches of government. But come on! As an unwritten rule there is no recourse if it is abused and in this case it clearly is.

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