The Senate — My First Impressions

It’s been an extremely interesting experience representing the people of the 22nd Legislative District in the New Jersey Senate this year.

Without a doubt, virtually all aspects of everyday life come before the Senate sooner or later, whether the issues involve property tax relief for homeowners, prescription drug help for seniors or educational opportunities for children.

When the new Senate session began in January, I wanted to listen and learn about the process and then figure out how to be the most effective Senator I could be.

Some of my colleagues introduce hundreds of bills knowing only a handful stand a chance of ever becoming laws. I’d rather focus on a few good bills that should become laws. So far, I have introduced 12 bills and three have been signed into law by the Governor. The others are still in Senate committees.

The three bills which I’ve had enacted involve campaign ethics reforms. One of them seemed so obvious, I was astonished it wasn’t a law already – it requires candidates for the Senate or the Assembly to disclose whether they have ever been convicted of a crime of the first, second, third or fourth degree.

As a first-term Senator, I have been fortunate to be appointed Vice Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Vice Chairman of the Senate State Government Committee and as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Judiciary Committee is often described as a “powerful” panel because it considers all of the gubernatorial nominations to the Governor’s cabinet, for judgeships to the State court system and for the 21 county prosecutors. Once the committee approves the nominations they get forwarded to the full Senate for confirmation votes.

Unfortunately, I believe the Judiciary Committee often is forced to do its work in the dark because of customs and procedures I believe are long overdue for changing.

As a practicing attorney and as the Linden City Prosecutor, I am well aware of the importance of good judges and how judges can have a profound impact on families. But all too often, the members of the Judiciary Committee don’t get to know enough about a judge and his first seven years on the bench to be able to cast the all important vote to grant that judge lifetime tenure until he or she reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Right now, only the two ranking committee members – one Democrat and one Republican – get access to the confidential court assessment information compiled about a judge’s performance in the court room by surveys of working lawyers done through the Administrative Office of the Courts. I believe all the committee members should have access to this information – well in advance of the committee meeting – so they can make an informed judgement about granting a judge tenure.

As a separate and co-equal branch of government, I don’t think the Senate should be cast as a rubber stamp for whatever nominations get sent our way from the Governor’s office.

I am aware that, over the years, efforts made to increase the research capacity of the Senate Judiciary Committee have been met with claims that the costs would be prohibitive.

Personally, I think the assurances of competent and honest judges would be worth the investment. Meanwhile, I have been informed that efforts are underway through negotiations between the executive, judicial and legislative branches to improve the information sharing process needed to cast an informed vote in the Judiciary Committee.

Overall, my experience in the Senate to date has been enlightening. What I’ve come to appreciate, thus far, is that the people who get the most done aren’t always the same people who make the most noise.

In some instances, we try to do too much too fast without enough scrutiny. But when the Senate and the Assembly take their time, hold sufficient review sessions and make the needed improvements to initial drafts of bills, the results can be remarkable.

For example, the reviews by the Senate and Assembly Environment Committees of the Highlands Preservation and Protection Act designed to ensure a reliable water source for half the State’s population produced an excellent new law. But improvements made during the review process helped to broaden the appeal and the acceptability of this landmark legislation.

Instead of seeking to grab headlines, I’ve found that a better way for me is to move ahead steadily, learn the process and find out ways to help my constituents. In many respects, my philosophy toward legislation has been: less is more.

Senator Nicholas P. Scutari represents the 22nd District, which includes parts of Union, Middlesex and Somerset Counties. The senator is Vice-Chair of the Senate Education Committee and the Senate State Government Committee, and is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.