NJ court upholds Christie appointment to Rutgers board, over Sweeney's objections

Posted: July 31, 2014

A New Jersey appeals court has upheld Gov. Christie's appointment of a Hispanic civil rights activist to the Rutgers University board of governors, ruling against the state's top elected Democrat.

Martín Perez's December 2012 appointment to Rutgers' main governing body, which took effect last July, "was a proper exercise" of Christie's authority, three judges ruled Tuesday.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) had sought to block Perez's appointment. He said Tuesday he would accept the decision, though he did not agree with it.

"I'm glad it's over and so I will continue serving my state and my university," Perez, 65, said by phone Tuesday. "I'm glad it's over and I just want to keep doing my job."

Christie directly appointed Perez under the provisions of a higher-education restructuring act passed in 2012 that took effect July 1, 2013. Perez, the president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, had previously been appointed by Christie, but that appointment was blocked.

But the higher-education restructuring gave Christie two additional appointments to the Rutgers board, expanding the number of political appointments to eight, from six. Perez was one of Christie's two new appointments.

Sweeney contested the action because of a residency requirement he said applied to that new slot. The law provides for eight gubernatorial appointments, including seven members appointed directly by the governor with the Senate's consent, one of whom must be a Camden County resident; and one member recommended by the state General Assembly and Senate leaders and then appointed by the governor, who must be an Essex County resident.

In addition, the law said Christie could fill some slots directly: "The first additional appointments . . . shall not require the advice and consent of the Senate, but thereafter such advice and consent shall be required."

The legal argument hinged on whether one of the new appointments, which Christie could fill directly, had to be a Camden County resident.

Sweeney contended that one of those appointments had to be from Camden County, and the other from Essex County. The governor disagreed.

Christie named Perez, of Middlesex County, to the board Dec. 19, 2012, as one of his two expanded appointments. Sweeney immediately blasted the move, saying then that Christie "has shown a reckless disregard for the law."

Christie later appointed Richard W. Roper, of Essex County, to fill the second additional slot; that appointment is uncontested. The governor in May 2013 nominated William M. Tambussi, a Camden County resident and ally of South Jersey Democrats, to fill an existing slot on the board. (The legislative session expired without action on Tambussi's nomination, but he has been renominated this session.)

The panel of three judges ruled that one of Christie's eight appointments would have to be from Camden County, but that the law did not specify that requirement for one of the two additional appointments.

"As we read the statute, the Legislature intended that the Governor's eight appointees would include two members that meet the prescribed residency requirements," reads the decision delivered by Judge Joseph L. Yannotti. "The Legislature did not expressly provide that 'first additional appointments' meet those residency requirements.' "

The judges also agreed with Christie's argument that the Legislature - including Sweeney, who helped sponsor the law - could have made that requirement part of the act:

"However, the Legislature imposed no such limitation," the decision read.

Sweeney said in a statement Tuesday that while he strongly disagreed with the decision, he would "accept the court's ruling.

"This appointment was clearly an illegal action," he said. "It is unfortunate that the court refused to see it for what it was."

Rutgers released a statement saying that the university is "pleased that this matter has been resolved," and that Perez will continue to serve on the board of governors.

His path to the governing board was anything but direct.

Christie first nominated Perez, a graduate of Rutgers-Newark's law school, on May 12, 2011. But Senate members - Christie has blamed "a small group of Middlesex County Democratic senators" and, specifically, State Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex) - invoked "senatorial courtesy," a practice where they can block candidates from their counties without explanation.

When he made the direct appointment December 19, 2012, Christie hailed "the historic appointment" of the second Hispanic-American member in the Rutgers board's history and the first in a decade.

But Sweeney described that move as a distraction from other actions by Christie, "who every year has done more and more to hurt Latinos," he said in a statement at the time.

Perez is a fellow Democrat, but he had lost some favor with legislative leadership after he backed a GOP redistricting proposal. Perez's organization also endorsed Christie's reelection campaign.

Christie's office declined to comment on Tuesday's decision, with a spokesman saying "the ruling speaks for itself."


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