I observed the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today and expected fireworks in the hearing to confirm Bob Hanna to be President of the Board of Public Utilities, but instead of fireworks, we got a dud.

Hanna’s confirmation was a love fest, and the committee unanimously advanced it to the full Senate for final approval. From what I can tell, although Hanna has had limited experience in the world of utilities and telecommunications, he’s a well-respected lawyer and public servant, and there’s no reason to deny the Governor’s appointment of Mr. Hanna to the BPU.

But our state senators are not shrinking violets (more on this later), and this hearing was a golden opportunity to raise some concerns and get Hanna’s response. No doubt he agrees with the Governor on the important issues facing the board, but he should have been asked about the state’s withdrawal from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (right after the Governor had a secret meeting with the Koch Brothers), the impact of the Governor’s de-emphasis of renewable energy in the state’s Energy Master Plan, and the Governor’s hidden tax increase when Mr. Christie took the money from the Societal Benefit Fund (a surcharge on your utility bill) to help balance the budget instead of investing those dollars in clean energy.

Maybe I just don’t understand how the Senate works. Maybe Hanna will receive some scrutiny when he appears before the full Senate on Thursday. But my guess is that all these hearings are just a perfunctory exercise and the Governor will be further emboldened to serve his patrons rather than the breathing public.

But, dear reader, fear not. There’s always something interesting going on in Trenton, even during pro forma confirmation hearings.

Before Hanna’s appearance, the Judiciary Committee voted on the reappointment of four Superior Court judges. All got glowing reports from their peers, and were deemed well-qualified for another term. (One judge had to face a disgruntled litigant and a disgruntled former client, but the committee heard their testimony and sent all four nominations to the full senate.)

As a matter of background, there’s an ongoing dispute and court case involving the increased employee contribution to health and pension benefits that Governor Christie has imposed on all state employees. So far, courts have ruled that for sitting judges this is illegal because the state Constitution clearly prohibits changes to a judge’s compensation while in office.

Not one to miss an opportunity to make political points, Senator Gerald Cardinale (R-39) questioned the first nominee, Judge Allison Accurso, on whether or not she would voluntarily pay more for her health and pension benefits to align with the Governor’s new guidelines. After Cardinale’s rant, Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-22) ruled the question as being out of order and directed Judge Accurso not to answer it.

As a result, during the confirmation vote, Cardinale gave another speech, and voted against Accurso, even though by all accounts she is eminently qualified for another term. The same political posturing was conducted for the next two reappointments, Judges Peter Bariso and Sheila Venable. Cardinale tried to rephrase the questions, and again Scutari was successful in keeping these irrelevant points out of the confirmation process. Cardinale also voted against Bariso and Venable.

Scutari was not quite as successful when Judge Nan Famular came to the witness table. Before Scutari could tell her not to answer the question, she said simply “I’m a team player.” That seemed to placate Cardinale, and Famular’s nomination was advanced unanimously.

It was certainly inappropriate for Cardinale to make political points on a pending court case. I don’t know how much these benefit changes will save the state over the remaining tenure of a few hundred judges. Perhaps if he wants to show that he is fiscally responsible, Cardinale should start with the cost of the Governor’s helicopter trips and his taxpayer-funded political rallies couched as town hall meetings.  That should bring on some real fireworks.

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