🔺 Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver passed after a brief hospitalization

🔺 Oliver's family has been silent about her health

🔺 Does the public have a right to know how long Oliver was ill and what she died from?

News of the passing of Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver after a brief hospitalization rocked the political world in New Jersey and left members of the public with a lot of questions.

◼ How long was Oliver ill?

◼ What was her condition?

◼ What did she die from?

Many readers have written to ask about Oliver's cause of death. Unless Oliver's family chooses to release that information publicly, we may never know the answers.

And that is OK, says Micah Rassmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

"We definitely don't want a situation where a person gives up the right to live a life with dignity and with privacy simply because they serve the public," Rassmussen said.

It is true there have been rumors that Oliver had been ill for some time, but it is an issue she has not addressed publicly so any talk of what may have been wrong is pure speculation.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver (Gov. Phil Murphy)

Rassmussen says whatever may have been wrong, it did not appear to impede her ability to function as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs or as acting governor when called upon, so her health issues rightly remained a private matter.

We may have never known anything was wrong, officially

If Gov. Phil Murphy had not been out of state and on vacation, the fact that Oliver had serious health issues may not ever have been known. It was only when they impacted her ability to act as the state's chief executive that Murphy's office announced she was incapacitated. The statement was brief, only confirming she had been hospitalized and Senate President Nick Scutari was acting governor.

Had Oliver not passed away, Rassmussen speculated the public may have been given more information.

Sheila Oliver

"I think had she survived in a way that prevented her from fully performing any of (her official) duties, that's something she would've had to have figured out," Rassmussen said. "Maybe at that point there would've been a disclosure or an assessment."

What is the public's right to know?

The answer to that question varies from situation to situation. In Oliver's case, even though there were rumors of poor health, the media never asked about it. There was no reason to do so because until this week it had no impact on her ability to do her job.

Rassmussen said that while he is a strong proponent of public information, the public's right to know ends when the information has no bearing on "the function of government itself."

There are distinctions in the public's right to know

The line between personal and private to the public's right to know definitely shifts when you are talking about governor versus lieutenant governor.

Being governor is a full-time responsibility. Any significant health issues can impact a person's ability to be on the job 24/7.

Gov. Phil Murphy and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver
Gov. Phil Murphy and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver (Lt Gov. Sheila Oliver)

"I think we're probably paying a lot more attention to the health of the governor than we are the lieutenant governor," Rassmussen said.

It's similar to the U.S president and vice president.

The president gets a yearly physical and the results are generally made public. We rarely hear anything about the health of the vice president.

Some precedent with Govs. Jon Corzine and Jim McGreevey

Rassmussen is in a unique position to comment on questions about the public right to know about the health of government officials. He was on the staff of then-Gov. Jim McGreevey when McGreevey fell and broke his leg on a Cape May beach in 2002.

McGreevey's staff was quiet about the incident until the following morning when they revealed the governor had undergone surgery and was resting comfortably.

James. E. McGreevey, Dina Matos McGreevey, Jack McGreevey,

There have always been rumors about how McGreevey broke his leg and who he was strolling with, but that's a story for another day.

In April 2007, Gov. Jon Corzine suffered life-threatening injuries in a car crash.

Corzine suffered injuries that left him in critical condition when the state SUV he was riding in crashed on the Garden State Parkway just north of Atlantic City.

Jon S. Corzine

The accident left Corzine with shattered ribs and multiple injuries that left him with severe blood loss. At the time, doctors said he was lucky to be alive.

Eventually, Corzine's staff gave a full briefing and made the doctors treating the governor available to the media.

Jon S. Corzine

In each case, reporters and the public wanted immediate information.

"Sometimes things just go very quiet and you can't get any answers. It's frustrating to staff members and to the public," Rassmussen said. "I think the public has the right to an expectation of what's going on."

Phil Murphy also had a medical scare

In March 2020, Sheila Oliver took over for Gov. Phil Murphy as he underwent surgery to remove a tumor on his kidney.

Since this was a planned surgery, Murphy and his staff were able to provide both background context as well as regular updates.

Phil Murphy

Murphy made the announcement himself on Twitter saying doctors had discovered a cancerous tumor.

We may never know why Sheila Oliver passed away

Sheila Oliver is only the second person to ever hold the office of lieutenant governor, so there is no precedent on what information is released, and her cause of death may remain a private family matter.

For now, the family and state government is focusing on the celebration of a life lived dedicated to public service and the countless lives Oliver impacted in a profoundly positive way.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver (Gov. Phil Murphy via Facebook)

Of course, we remain curious, but Oliver and her family are deserving of our respect for their privacy.

For now, the focus is where it should be: Oliver's trailblazing life of selfless service to the people of New Jersey.

NJ residents giving most money to Trump 2024 campaign

According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, these New Jersey residents have given the most money this year to former President Donald Trump's 2024 election campaign. These aggregate year-to-date totals are current as of June 30, 2023. These figures do not include donations to super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts.

How much you need to earn to be in each state's Top 1%

This is how much you need to earn to be in the Top 1% of income owners in each state of these two states, including New Jersey, according to a study by SmartAsset. For the full list of states, see the study at SmartAsset.

These towns actually cut their property taxes in 2022

New Jersey 101.5 examined Department of Treasury data to see which municipalities saw an average drop in property taxes last year. Here are the Top 20 average tax cuts followed by the rest.

Report a correction 👈 | 👉 Contact our newsroom

More From New Jersey 101.5 FM