TRENTON - A key Senate panel on Thursday unanimously approved Gov. Christie's nominee to the New Jersey Supreme Court, clearing the way for his confirmation next week.
The Judiciary Committee's hearing and 13-0 vote followed a surprise move last week, when the Republican governor joined Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) at a news conference to announce he was nominating a Democrat, Walter Timpone.
The Senate's confirmation of Timpone, 65, of Cranford, would break a years-long impasse over the partisan balance on the court. The court's mandatory retirement age is 70, so Timpone could serve only five years.
"A Supreme Court justice must recognize the constitutional role of the Legislature and the executive branches," Timpone said in his opening remarks Thursday. "These are branches elected by and most accountable to the people of the state of New Jersey, who are charged with the power and duty to establish the laws of the state."
He added, "My independence and integrity, which I've strived hard to build and maintain in 30 years of practice, will never be compromised."
In February, Christie nominated a Republican, Superior Court Judge David Bauman of Monmouth County, to fill the vacancy on the seven-member court. The vacancy of nearly six years has been filled by Appellate Division judges called up by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.
Sweeney refused to consider Bauman's nomination, arguing that the pick would tilt the court too far to the right.
With Timpone's confirmation, the court would maintain its current composition of three registered Republicans, three Democrats, and one unaffiliated justice.
Timpone is a former assistant U.S. attorney who led the public corruption unit in Newark. He is a partner and criminal-defense attorney at the law firm McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, as well as a commissioner on the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.
The Senate committee's questioning focused on two issues: Timpone's recusal from a campaign-finance case against Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, and the circumstances of his withdrawal from consideration as first assistant to Christie when the governor was U.S. attorney in 2002.
In 2013, the election commission alleged in a complaint that DiVincenzo, a Democratic power broker and ally of Christie, had misused thousands of dollars in campaign funds.
An administrative law judge last year recommended that the case be dismissed because, he said, the board did not have a quorum to vote on the matter. Timpone was the lone Democrat; the other members, Ronald DeFilippis and Amos Saunders, were Republicans. The commission is appealing the decision.
Timpone, a commissioner since 2010, told lawmakers he recused himself because of a conflict of interest. While in private practice, Timpone said, he had served as outside counsel to Essex County. In 2003, DiVincenzo gave Timpone's nephew a job at Timpone's request.
Two years later, Timpone said, his nephew and DiVincenzo had a "falling out," and his nephew resigned.
So when the commission filed the complaint in 2013, Timpone said, he believed he was in a bind: "If I voted in favor of the complaint, then I was doing it out of malice because my nephew resigned," he said, characterizing how he thought the vote would be perceived. Voting against the complaint could signal that he was simply paying DiVincenzo a favor for the job.
"I didn't want to damage my personal ethics or the reputation of the Election Law Enforcement Commission," Timpone said.
The senators mostly seemed persuaded by that argument.
"The effect of your withdrawal was essentially to give that person a pass," said Sen. Gerry Cardinale (R., Bergen). "Did that consideration come into your mind?"
Timpone said his ethical obligations superseded other considerations.
Timpone also was pressed about the 2002 incident regarding his candidacy for first assistant to Christie, then U.S. attorney.
Timpone told lawmakers that because Christie lacked prosecutorial experience, there was concern "he might be coming to the position with an agenda."
New Jersey's two U.S. senators, Democrats Jon S. Corzine and Robert Torricelli, would not sign off on Christie as President George W. Bush's nominee unless Christie picked a Democrat with law enforcement experience as his first assistant, Timpone said.
Timpone said he met with both senators to win their support. Torricelli's staff told Timpone to meet the senator at Torricelli's house, Timpone said. So he did.
It was that meeting that would ultimately derail Timpone's candidacy.
At the time, prosecutors in New York were investigating Torricelli's finances and campaign fund-raising. (The senator was never charged.) Timpone was representing former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski, who was being investigated for corruption.
Prosecutors, who were trying to enlist Janiszewski as an informant against Torricelli, called Timpone to ask him about his relationship with the senator.
"Do you socialize with the senator?" Timpone recalled being asked by New York prosecutors. "Does he come to your house? Do you go to his?"
Timpone said he responded that he did not socialize with Torricelli. Prosecutors found that answer evasive, the New York Times reported at the time, given that FBI surveillance had captured Timpone visiting Torricelli's home.
"I was a little unhappy with the way the questions were being posed," Timpone said, because the prosecutors did not directly ask him about the visit.
"At no time [were] Sen. Torricelli and I alone ,,, and at no time did we discuss anything other than my desire to become first assistant U.S. attorney," Timpone said. The senator's staff members were in the room during the meeting, he said.
Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R., Passaic) said that when he learned Christie had nominated Timpone, he read news accounts of the Torricelli episode that "sounded ominous, sinister."
O'Toole said he did not understand why, for example, Timpone had even visited Torricelli. But Timpone's explanation allayed his concerns, he said.
Timpone said that as a justice, he would recuse himself from cases that involved his current law firm, the election commission, and DiVincenzo. "On other issues, I would seek guidance," he said.