N.J. Senate confirms nine new judges as legislative session draws to close

By: - January 8, 2024 3:58 pm

The judges confirmed Monday by the Senate, led by Senate President Nicholas Scutari, will be the last to be confirmed in the current legislative session, which ends at noon Tuesday. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

The New Jersey Senate confirmed nine new Superior Court judges on Thursday, the penultimate day of the legislative session.

Once they are sworn in, the judges confirmed Monday will reduce the state’s number of judicial vacancies to 47. New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has said the judiciary can operate sustainably if vacancies are around 30.

“I think we saw a really good mix of judges going through. I’m very happy with the picks that we’ve had, and we’ll have more coming up on the next agenda that we have in the new legislature,” said Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), the Senate judiciary chairman.

The day’s confirmations are the first since the Senate approved 11 Superior Court nominations on Dec. 11.

The judges confirmed Monday will also be the last to be confirmed in the current legislative session, which ends at noon Tuesday. Eleven would-be Superior Court judges never made it to a floor vote, including some who were never considered by the committee.

Some of the unmoving nominations were stalled by senatorial courtesy, an unwritten rule that allows senators to unilaterally and indefinitely block gubernatorial nominees from their home county or legislative district.

Those nominations will expire with the start of the new legislative session, though Gov. Phil Murphy can renominate them.

Among those confirmed Monday were Jason Rockwell, deputy director of the state’s law division, and Thomas Sarlo, the brother of Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the upper chamber’s budget committee chairman. Sen. Sarlo recused himself from voting on his brother’s confirmation but defended his selection as a new judge.

“You could ask anybody out there: He’s had such a distinguished legal career in the private sector. Great family man. He’s served the public in so many different capacities, as counsel and so many different agencies and boards,” he said.

Thomas Sarlo is a councilman in Little Ferry.

The Senate also confirmed two administrative law judges and granted tenure to one sitting Superior Court judge. In New Jersey, judges are first confirmed to a seven-year term and can serve until the mandatory retirement age of 70 if renominated and confirmed a second time.

Though the judiciary committee sped through all of its judicial nominations Monday, it held off considering one of the governor’s nominations to the State Board of Education, an influential body still mostly staffed by holdovers from Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure.

Stack said he delayed a vote on that nominee, Claudine Keenan, because some of the committee’s members had not met with her ahead of Monday’s hearing.

“I think there was some questions — interviews with different members that wanted to speak with her first,” Stack said. “We should have her on probably in the next meeting that we have.”

Murphy’s nominees to the state school board frequently face resistance from the chamber’s Republican members, though a separate confirmation Monday saw the board move closer to the governor’s image.

On Monday, the upper chamber confirmed Jeanette Pena — a Murphy school board nominee who won committee approval earlier in January — in a 27-4 vote.

Pena is only the second state board of education member confirmed under Murphy, who first took office in 2018. The full Senate confirmed Mary Bennett to the board in December.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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