By John Celock
Two New Jersey state senators are pushing for the state to start electing the attorney general rather than rely on gubernatorial appointment.
The state Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee heard testimony Thursday on two proposed constitutional amendments that would allow for the election of the state attorney general. The two senators pushing the change – Sens. Peter Barnes (D-Edison) and Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) – both explained that had different reasons for the changeover in state law.
“This bill would create more stability in the office,” Barnes said. “We’ve had eight attorneys general in the last 12 years.”
Barnes said that he would want to see an attorney general who is accountable to the state’s voters rather than the governor. Lesniak said that his bill was focused on what he sees is Gov. Chris Christie (R) not naming an attorney general, rather letting acting Attorney General John Hoffman hold the job for two years on an acting basis, which Lesniak said has not been ideal.
Under the state Constitution, the governor names the attorney general to serve a four year term concurrent with the governor with Senate confirmation. During that term, the attorney general can only be removed for cause. The constitution provides the same protections to the secretary of state. Christie and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) – who was elected on a ticket with Christie – are the state’s only elected constitutional officers. Guadagno doubles as secretary of state.
Lesniak told the committee that he sees Christie’s decision to keep Hoffman in on an acting basis for two years has led Hoffman to wanting to please Christie since he is serving at his pleasure. Hoffman was appointed acting attorney general in June 2013 after Christie named former Attorney General Jeff Chiesa to a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate. Christie had planned to name his former chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, to the attorney general’s office but stopped following the Bridgegate scandal, where O’Dowd was called to testify before a legislative committee.
“The fact that he is acting and serving at the pleasure of the governor,” Lesniak said. “The attorney general, no matter who he is, it could be Pope Francis, should not be serving at the pleasure of the governor.”
Barnes said that he sees an acting attorney general being able to be independent form the governor and provide his platform to the entire state. He noted that he first got the idea after reading a biography of former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, saying that he admired Kennedy’s work on civil rights. Committee Chairman Jim Whelen (D-Atlantic City) reminded Barnes that Kennedy was appointed to the attorney general’s office by his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and drew most of his authority from being the president’s brother. Barnes said that it was not Kennedy’s route to the Justice Department that impressed him but rather what he said was Kennedy’s job performance, which he said could be found in an elected attorney general.
Whelen noted that he had reservations on the proposal but said he was willing to explore it. He noted that if an elected attorney general were to leave office early, the replacement would likely be appointed.
The amendments would not change the attorney general’s duties and would leave the attorney general in charge of a series of divisions including law, gaming enforcement, the state police, consumer affairs, alcohol beverage control and criminal justice. County prosecutors and state judges would remain appointive posts.
Barnes noted that elections would provide “checks and balances” on the governor. He said the election would allow for the attorney general to be vetted by voters.
Forty three states currently have a popularly elected attorney general, along with the District of Columbia and Guam. In Maine the attorney general is appointed by the state Legislature, while in Tennessee the state Supreme Court picks the attorney general. The remaining state attorneys general are appointed by governors.
New Jersey has historically vested considerable authority in the governor since the adoption of the current state constitution in 1947. The lieutenant governor’s office was first created in 2009. In addition to the elected attorney general proposal, a proposal is pending in the Legislature to make the state comptroller as elected position.
A 1997 proposal by former Gov. Jim McGreevey (D) in his first unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign to elect a state insurance commissioner was not implemented. McGreevey did not push the issue during his governorship from 2002 to 2004.
Thursday’s committee meeting was for discussion only with no committee action. If the bill were to pass the Legislature, it would then go up for public referendum.
“To have an attorney general who is elected on public policy issues and advocates during that campaign and then takes office to have those issues become law, is a lot better situation for us than an attorney general being appointed by the governor,” Lesniak said.