TRENTON, N.J. (Legal Newsline) - At least one New Jersey newspaper is calling for a change in how the state’s attorney general is selected.
In a staff editorial published Friday, the Asbury Park Press argues that the governor should no longer be able to appoint the state’s top lawyer. Instead, it should be an elected position.
Currently, the attorney general and all 21 county prosecutors are selected by the governor and approved by the state Senate.
In fact, New Jersey is just one of five states left that appoints its attorney general. In Maine, state lawmakers elect the attorney general. In Tennessee, the attorney general is selected by its highest court. In more than 40 other states, the position is elected by the people.
“The theory is that an appointed AG depoliticizes the position, allowing for more independence,” the Park Press editorial board wrote. “That continues to be the argument against making the AG an elected post; an appointee doesn’t have to satisfy party chieftains and climb the partisan ranks to be anointed a nominee.
“But there’s one vital caveat to all of that: It presupposes that a governor making the choice will do so responsibly, empowering the AG to act independently.”
Gov. Chris Christie, along with his predecessors, the newspaper argues, are “increasingly unwilling to do that.”
“Instead, they put in place allies who won’t aggressively turn their efforts against anyone or anything that might embarrass the governor’s party,” the newspaper wrote.
The Park Press contends the current attorney general, John Hoffman, who has been acting attorney general since 2013, has “done the governor’s bidding time and time again.”
It points out that former Gov. Jon Corzine’s choices for attorney general also were “notoriously weak or unresponsive” on various issues.
“What we’re seeing isn’t simply the manipulative schemes of a few isolated leaders; it’s part of a worsening national trend in which public service is becoming less and less important to politicians focused on acquiring and maintaining power,” the newspaper wrote.
State Sen. Peter Barnes, a Democrat, last year introduced a bill that would ask voters to amend the state constitution, changing the selection process.
So far, no action has been taken on the legislation.
“New Jersey governors wield extraordinary power, but they can no longer be trusted with so much of it,” the Park Press wrote in its editorial. “Voters deserve a chance to decide if they want a more independent attorney general, and that will only be achieved by electing one.”
Tennessee, one of the few states who does not elect its attorney general, currently is working on legislation that would similarly amend its state constitution.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.