Why is a Black woman’s nomination to an all-white environmental board being blocked? Opinion
STAR-LEDGER // February 10, 2022
Since he’s been in office, Gov. Phil Murphy has nominated eight residents of New Jersey’s most populous city to various commissions and councils. Not one of them has been approved by the Senate to serve on the body to which they were appointed.
Why? Because of an unwritten, yet immutable law in New Jersey known as senatorial courtesy.
In balancing powers among the branches of government, the New Jersey Constitution requires that most of the positions appointed by the governor — including cabinet officials, judges and seats on high-level boards and commissions — must be confirmed by the New Jersey Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee interviews all gubernatorial nominees, subject to the advice and consent stipulation of the Constitution. If approved by the committee, the nominee advances to a confirmation vote by the full Senate.
But before a nominee can be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee, every senator whose legislative district includes any part of the county in which the nominee resides, has the prerogative to block the nomination indefinitely and without explanation.
Governor Murphy nominated Newark resident Wynnie-Fred Victor-Hinds to the Highlands Council in March 2020. Newark, in the most populous county, Essex, spans six legislative districts. Six senators, Teresa Ruiz, Ron Rice, Richard Codey, Kristin Corrado, Nia Gill and Joe Pennachio had to sign off on Ms. Victor-Hinds’s nomination before the Senate Judiciary Committee would consider the nomination.
Any one of the six senators may permanently block the governor’s nominee. Senator Nia Gill, alone, is blocking Wynnie’s appointment. But not only is Wynnie being blocked, all of Governor Murphy’s nominees to a variety of boards and commissions who are Newark residents, have been blocked under senatorial courtesy.
Now that the 2020-2021 Legislative Session is ended, it is doubtful that the governor will renominate Wynnie, or any of Wynnie’s Newark neighbors, for the 2022- 2023 Legislative Session.
Why was every nomination from Newark blocked? We do not know, because senators are not required to even acknowledge the block.
In the case of Ms. Victor-Hinds, we can surmise that Gill’s courtesy hold had nothing to do with qualifications. Governor Murphy could not have nominated a more qualified member to the Highlands Council.
Ms. Victor Hinds is co-chair of the Newark Environmental Commission, she is a founding member of the Newark Water Group, and is active in several environmental and environmental justice causes in her community and statewide. She has an advanced degree in international relations from the New School.
The Highlands Council, currently all white and all male, needs to expand its gender and racial perspectives. And Newark, which owns 35,000 acres of the Highlands core forest, which buffers its five water supply reservoirs, has never been represented on the Highlands Council, despite being the Highlands’ largest landowner.
Newark’s interest in protecting the quality of Highlands water resources very much aligns with the goals and objectives of the Highlands Act. What is uncanny is that under normal circumstances, Senator Gill would be championing Wynnie’s appointment to the Highlands Council. In fact, in 2015, the New Jersey Highlands Coalition recognized Senator Gill with its Vision & Leadership Award for standing up to Governor Christie when he replaced a pro-environmental African American Pinelands Commissioner in retaliation for voting against a politically connected project.
Senator Gill’s courtesy block was absolute — as she is accountable to no one. Residents of Newark have absolutely no say in Gill’s blocking of Wynnie or the seven other nominees because they are not part of Senator Gill’s district. They cannot register their displeasure of this senator’s actions at the ballot box.
It would make better sense if senatorial courtesy was provided only to the senator in whose legislative district the nominee resides. But to extend it to include every senator whose legislative district includes any part of the county in which the nominee resides, including nominees residing outside of the senators’ districts, makes no sense and it is clearly contrary to any democratic principle.
The county’s relevance here is a holdover from the 1960s when the county was the legislative district. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that legislative districts must be equivalent in population and the one-senator-per-county representation was reapportioned into legislative districts that no longer aligned with county boundaries, the county basis for senatorial courtesy should have been abandoned.
As an unwritten rule, senatorial courtesy does not even exist, in a legal sense. In fact, in 1993, senatorial courtesy was challenged before the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled it to be “nonjusticiable.” It would be up to the Senate to willingly give up a power it now enjoys. Do not expect any level of public outcry in a state where most registered voters couldn’t even name their state senator.
Meanwhile, don’t expect the governor to appoint any Newark resident to any state-level office requiring Senate approval anytime soon. Why bother?