Matt Platkin was nominated as attorney general in February, but his confirmation has been delayed because two of his home county senators did not immediately sign off on the appointment. (Courtesy of the New Jersey Governor's Office)
The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the nomination of acting Attorney General Matt Platkin Monday after a two-and-a-half hearing where Platkin faced questions about his views on abortion, his age, and his handling of a sexual assault allegation against a Murphy administration staffer.
The committee approved Platkin’s nomination in an 8-2 vote that fell almost entirely along party lines — Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union) was the only Republican to vote in favor. Platkin’s nomination now heads to the full Senate, which likely will not schedule a vote on it until the fall.
Questions about the rape allegation were expected. Platkin, who previously served as Gov. Phil Murphy’s chief counsel, was among the officials criticized by a select legislative committee empaneled to probe the administration’s handling of a sexual assault allegation former Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency chief of staff Katie Brennan made against Al Alvarez, a 2017 Murphy campaign staffer who later became chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority.
“Is my understanding, correct, that you didn’t advise Gov. Murphy of this issue for months, and maybe longer, when you were aware of it and were taking steps to address this issue?” Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren) asked Platkin Monday.
Platkin responded that there are “things, certainly, we would’ve done differently with hindsight.”
“One of the things that I said then that I would say again today is I would’ve told the governor of the specific allegation, but I think it’s important also for the committee to consider the work that I have done, this administration has done, and the state has done since that time,” he said.
The legislative committee found Murphy was not told of Brennan’s allegation before the Wall Street Journal reported it, though Brennan directly informed top-ranking officials, including Platkin, about the alleged assault. Alvarez was not criminally charged and denies he raped Brennan.
Platkin also faced questions from Doherty about his age and legal experience. Platkin, at 35, would be the youngest confirmed attorney general in New Jersey history. He earned his law degree in 2014.
“No one comes into this job as attorney general fully prepared for the breadth of responsibilities that come with leading a department of 17 divisions, offices, commissions — almost 8,000 employees,” Platkin said. “But I have had a number of experiences that have prepared me, I believe, for this role.”
In addition to serving as the governor’s chief counsel, Platkin was briefly special counsel to U.S. Sen. Cory Booker during former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial and has worked in the private sector.
Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris) questioned Platkin over a new law that bars New Jersey law enforcement from cooperating with out-of-state investigations into abortions performed in New Jersey. Bucco said the law could impede human trafficking investigations.
“Clearly, if another law enforcement agency is seeking information from our state in regard to a sex-trafficking incident, doesn’t that concern you that we’re prohibited from sharing certain information with another state?” Bucco said.
Platkin said state law doesn’t prevent New Jersey authorities from coordinating with out-of-state law enforcement entities on sex trafficking issues.
Gov. Phil Murphy nominated Platkin in February, but his confirmation has been delayed because two of his home county senators did not immediately sign off on the appointment. An unwritten legislative rule called senatorial courtesy allows senators to indefinitely block nominees from their home county or legislative district.
All of Platkin’s home senators have now given their approval of his nomination, but he likely won’t be confirmed until the fall. There was too little Republican support for his nomination to move through committee and be confirmed by the full Senate in a single day.
However, Republicans joined Democrats to approve same-day confirmations for other nominees approved at Monday’s committee meeting, allowing the full Senate to confirm four Superior Court judges and a handful of other nominees to other bodies shortly after they won committee approval.
One of the reasons the Senate Judiciary Committee met during the Legislature’s customary summer recess was to advance judicial nominees at a time of near-record judicial vacancies.
The newly confirmed judges bring the number of Superior Court vacancies down to 59. New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has said the court could operate sustainably with as many as 30 vacancies.
Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said the panel might return later in August — perhaps more than once — to confirm more judges, but he said no meetings have yet been scheduled.
“We have a long way to go, there’s no doubt about it. As the chairman of the committee, the Senate president and myself are committed: If we have to hold additional hearings over the summer, we’re willing to do that,” Stack said. “We’re willing to do it later this month and in September until we can clear out the backlog.”
Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) said the Senate might return this month “if there’s something we need to do that’s of a very significant nature.”
New Jersey’s Supreme Court, too, is still missing a large chunk of its cohort. Only four of the high court’s seven seats are filled by a confirmed justice, and it can only operate because Rabner has temporarily elevated presiding Appellate Division Judge Jose Fuentes to fill one of the vacancies.
The nomination of Rachel Wainer Apter, Murphy’s pick for a Supreme Court seat that former Justice Jaynee LaVecchia gave up at the start of the year, has continued to languish, blocked by Sen. Holly Schepisi’s invocation of senatorial courtesy (Wainer Apter lives in Schepisi’s district).
The practice appears poised to persist. Scutari said he probably would not seek to end senatorial courtesy “because that’s something that’s ingrained in this house.”
“It gives a great amount of input by senators, and it’s actually worked very well. New Jersey has one of the best screening processes for judges and Supreme Court justices out of any state. They don’t run for office here,” he said.
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