New Jersey Senator Becomes Judge

By John Celock

A New Jersey state senator was unanimously confirmed by his colleagues Monday for a state judgeship, setting up a contentious legislative battle in his home county.

The Senate voted 33-0 to confirm Sen. Peter Barnes III (D-Edison) as a Superior Court judge. Barnes, who will step down immediately from the Senate, is slated to be succeeded by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-South Plainfield) following an upcoming Democratic Party convention. Diegnan’s expected elevation to the Senate has set up a battle to succeed him in the Assembly.

“I appreciate the trust the voters have placed in me from my hometown of Edison and from the 18th district,” Barnes told the Senate moments after his confirmation.

Under his New Jersey law, Democratic Party committee members in the 18th district will pick Barnes’ successor in the Senate – likely Diegnan – during an upcoming convention. Diegnan’s successor in the Assembly will be picked at a similar convention with Edison Councilman Robert Diehl, Edison Councilwoman Sapana Shah, Edison Councilman Robert Karabinchek and Highland Park Councilwoman Elsie Foster-Dublin all running for the Assembly seat. With Edison controlling the majority of the seats in the convention, an edge would likely be with an Edison candidate, but Foster-Dublin could have an edge given a likely split within Edison.

Diegnan, the chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, and the new Assembly member will not have long to serve, with the appointed terms running through the November election, when voters will elect a senator and Assembly member to serve through the end of the current terms in January 2018. Given the Democratic edge in the 18th district, Democrats are likely to hold both seats. With the filing deadline passed for the June primary election in New Jersey, Democratic Party leaders will pick the November election candidates for both seats, likely Diegnan and the newly elected Assembly member.

Barnes leaves a Senate seat he first won in 2013 and closes out the service of his family in the New Jersey Legislature. Barnes was first appointed to the Assembly by a special party convention in 2007, succeeding his father, Peter Barnes Jr., who left the Assembly to become chairman of the state Parole Board. The elder Barnes had spent 11 years in the Assembly. Barnes came to the Assembly following 11 years as a councilman in Edison.

Barnes currently serves as the vice chairman of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee, along with serving on the Budget and Appropriations Committee and the State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee.

Barnes’ confirmation came after tributes poured in on both sides of the aisle, praising the outgoing senator for his work ethic in the Senate and in Middlesex County. Sen. Gerry Cardinale (R-Demarest) praised Barnes as being studious for his work in the Senate and on various committees.

“You have our heartfelt wishes for a great career as a jurist,” Cardinale said. “Your past experience has given you all the equipment you need for a great career.”

Barnes will likely serve as a judge in Middlesex County but Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has the option of assigning him to serve in any of the state’s 21 counties. Rabner will also control whether Barnes will start his judicial career hearing family, criminal or civil cases. Many Superior Court judges in New Jersey start off in family court.

In his farewell remarks to the Senate, Barnes thanked his colleagues and the Senate staff and praised his wife, Katie, who joined him on the Senate floor. Barnes noted the hard work of his colleagues, in particular citing Cardinale and Sen. Dick Codey (D-Roseland) for their long service. Codey, a former governor, has served in the state Legislature since 1974.

“Thank you for allowing me to be part of the history of our great state,” Barnes said.