Christie’s Supreme Court nominee advancing quickly
Gov. Chris Christie’s latest candidate for the state Supreme Court won unanimous approval Thursday from the Senate Judiciary Committee and is on track for confirmation Monday by the full Senate.
Walter Timpone, of Cranford, a former federal prosecutor and longtime partner in the McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter law firm, was a compromise choice, and his confirmation will end a nearly six-year political battle and vacancy on New Jersey’s highest court.
“There’s probably nothing important to me as a lawyer and as a person to maintain my integrity and to be objective and to be dispassionate and also to be fair,” Timpone said. “I think it’s the hallmark of what we should be as human beings, and I think it’s very important for when you practice law.”
Timpone, 65, satisfied senators with his explanation of two nagging issues — a visit to U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli in 2002 when the senator was under federal investigation, and his recusal as a member of the Election Law Enforcement Commission that ended a case against the Essex County executive.
Timpone also was asked to explain his short-term representation of Bridget Kelly in the Bridgegate case, but wasn’t pressed hard on those matters. The loudest grumbling was actually about the speed with which senators must vet and vote on the nominee, who was announced last week.
“It makes it appear as if there’s something that we have to rush based upon you, since we’ve kept this seat open for six years,” said Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, who asked for an extra week to add “a legitimacy to the process.”
Timpone is a Democrat who will fill the seat that has been vacant since Christie didn’t renominate Justice John Wallace Jr. in 2010. He tried for years to install an additional Republican, but Democrats voted down or refused to consider four different nominees, saying the court would lack its traditional political balance if it had four Republicans, one independent and two Democrats.
“This is a very special day,” said Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Essex, “that there is a reaching across the aisle with both parties to making some good happen.
Here’s how Timpone explained away a few lingering controversies:
In 2002, Timpone was in line to become Christie’s top assistant when Christie became U.S. attorney. During that process, he interviewed with New Jersey’s two United States senators – at the time, Jon Corzine and Robert Torricelli.
The meeting with Torricelli came in an office at the senator’s Englewood home. It also came at a time Torricelli was being looked at by federal prosecutors regarding possible campaign-finance violations, and investigators were cooperating with a client of Timpone’s – then-Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski – on secretly taping conversations with the senator.
Timpone said Janiszewski didn’t come up at the meeting, which was also attended by aides to the senator. But when two prosecutors looking at Torricelli called his days later asking him if he socialized with Torricelli, he said he did not – and rather than encourage a direct question, got defensive.
“I was being, as I think about it now, too lawyerly with the responses, but I was a little unhappy with the way the questions were being posed to me,” Timpone said.
“I’ve had a lot of time, 14 years, to think about this, and I do not count this among my best days as a lawyer,” Timpone said. “My response should have been: If you have a question about whether I have a conflict or not, let’s go to court. I didn’t do that. I got nicked, and I paid the price as a result.”
After a New York Times article about Timpone’s visit to Torricelli, the Justice Department became concerned about his appointment and, despite Christie’s support, Timpone withdrew.
“I believe you got a bum rap” on the Torricelli matter, Sen. Brian Stack, D-Hudson, told Timpone.
Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said he spoke with Torricelli while vetting Timpone’s nomination.
Since 2010, Timpone has been a member of the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. The agency is supposed to have two Democrats and two Republicans but due to vacancies currently has one of each, including Timpone.
Regulators outlined a complaint against Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. alleging he had improperly spent campaign funds for personal use. Timpone recused himself from the matter because of past interactions with DiVincenzo, which prompted the case to be dismissed because it lacked the votes needed to be pursued. (DiVincenzo, incidentally, is an ally of Christie.)
Timpone said he recused from the case because while working as private counsel for Essex County, which has had a contract with his firm for 20 years, he asked DiVincenzo about a job for his nephew. That nephew was hired by the county, then left two years later after a falling-out with DiVincenzo.
“Based on these set of factors, you’re kind of darned if you do and darned if you don’t. If I voted in favor of the complaint, then I was doing it out of malice because my nephew resigned. Or if I voted against the complaint, I was doing it because I owed him a favor.”
“The effect of your withdrawing was essentially to give that person a pass because of the shortness of staff, and you knew about the shortness of staff," state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, said.
“My ethical obligations overpower any of that,” Timpone said. “I am satisfied in my heart of hearts that I did the right thing in recusing.”
O’Toole suggested that because Timpone represented the county executive, he’d have had to recuse from the ELEC matter even without his nephew’s hiring and resignation.
In 2014, Timpone was briefly retained by Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, about her alleged role in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal. He withdrew, citing a conflict due to his role as an ELEC commissioner appointed by Christie.
“When you initially agreed to represent that individual, did you consider your position as an ELEC commissioner before deciding to assume that representation?” Scutari asked.
“I did not, and that was an oversight on my part,” Timpone said.