Judicial pick irks Burlington County bar chief

Paula Dow was named by Gov. Christie to be a state Superior Court judge in Burlington County.
Paula Dow was named by Gov. Christie to be a state Superior Court judge in Burlington County.
Posted: June 05, 2012

Lawyers in Burlington County have expressed dismay over Gov. Christie’s nomination last week of former New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow to serve as a state Superior Court judge in the county though she has neither worked nor lived there.

Although Dow’s qualifications have not been questioned, Burlington County Bar Association president Timothy S. Farrow said the group was disappointed that a lawyer from its ranks was not selected. "The bar association does have an interest in having judges appointed who are local practitioners," Farrow, a Democrat, said.

Katherine D. Hartman, a Moorestown lawyer, said she had nothing against Dow, but was irritated that a local lawyer wasn’t nominated. There are two vacancies on the bench.

"It is extraordinarily disheartening to see Burlington County used as a dumping ground," said Hartman, also a Democrat. At least eight other lawyers who have not practiced in the county have been elevated to judgeships there in the last 10 years, she said.

The nomination is just the latest in an ongoing battle between the Republican governor and the legal community over his judicial appointments. The problems surfaced when Christie, in an unprecedented move, did not renew the appointment of a sitting Supreme Court justice in 2010 because the governor perceived his decisions as liberal. A courts advisory board composed of Republicans and Democrats later resigned in protest.

Last week, the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee took the rare step of rejecting a second Christie Supreme Court nominee.

In January, Christie nominated Dow to a Superior Court judgeship in Essex County, her home, but the senators there invoked the unwritten rule of senatorial courtesy, which allows home senators to block a nomination.

For months, the Democratic senators there have been scuffling with the Republican governor over various political appointments, including Dow’s and Christie’s pick for education commissioner. When Christie’s choices were blocked, he retaliated by not naming any more judges to the county’s grossly understaffed bench.

Michael Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman, said Dow recently told Christie she was moving to Burlington County and asked him to nominate her for a judgeship there and withdraw her Essex nomination. "Her move is merely a personal choice, not associated with her nomination," Drewniak said.

Dow, a Democrat, declined to comment for this article. The nomination papers say she lives in Willingboro, a community close to Superior Court in Mount Holly, the county seat.

She is expected to be confirmed before the Senate takes its summer break in July.

In Burlington County, Republican Sen. Diane Allen praised Dow’s nomination to the 15-member bench. "Attorney General Dow served with toughness, integrity, and compassion as the highest law enforcement officer in New Jersey. ... The people of Burlington County will be lucky to have an attorney of her caliber and experience," she said.

Burlington County’s other senator, Dawn Marie Addiego, also a Republican, is loyal to Christie and expected to approve Dow. Addiego did not return a call for comment.

Unlike in Pennsylvania, where judges are elected, New Jersey judges are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate after receiving approval of each of the home senators. The state bar association also is given the opportunity to review applicants’ credentials.

In any case, Christie has nominated Dow as an "unrestricted judge," meaning she does not have to live in the county in which she will serve. Among the state’s 443 Superior Court judges, 160 are bound by residency rules.

Ronald Bookbinder, Burlington County’s assignment judge, welcomed Dow to the local bench. He said he had spoken twice to her since Christie announced his intention to nominate her in Burlington County on May 24. "I think she’ll be an outstanding judge because she is very well-versed as the attorney general and the way justice works in New Jersey," he said.

But Hartman said many hardworking and talented lawyers in the county looked forward to the possibility of becoming judges and working with the local lawyers, only to see state officials "transplant people in from all over and parachute them in for political convenience. ... We’ve been short on judges for years, and can’t get anyone. But then she [Dow] runs into political trouble up north and, voilà, gets appointed here."

Dow, a former Essex County prosecutor, was the state’s first African American attorney general. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in 1980 and later worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office with Christie. She is a single mother with two children.

Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224, jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog on philly.com/BurlcoBuzz

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