New Jersey Succession Plan Concentrates Power

By: - August 23, 2004 12:00 am

New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey’s plan to resign Nov. 15 following his stunning admission of an extramaritial affair with another man will likely set in motion a bizarre succession plan that breaches the doctrine of separation of powers in the Garden State.

Unlike most states, New Jersey has no lieutenant governor. If McGreevey (D) quits after Sept. 3, less than 60 days before this year’s general election, then Senate President Richard Codey (D) will serve as acting governor until McGreevey’s term ends in January 2006.

Codey’s dual roles of chief executive and legislative leader mean he could find himself casting a deciding vote on a bill he proposed and then signing it into law. This has led to renewed calls from New Jersey Republicans and Democrats alike for a change in the state Constitution to add a second-in-command.

New Jersey’s unusual succession plan is about to unfold for the second time in the past three years. Gov. Christine Whitman (R) left office to become administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in 2001, and the presiding officer of the New Jersey Senate, Democrat Donald DiFrancesco, took on her duties and powers as the state’s chief executive.

As acting governor, DiFrancesco defused criticism by saying that he would resign from his law firm and not preside over the state senate. Having the dual role came with responsibility, DiFrancesco said.

“It means you have to be very sensitive to the power you have,” DiFrancesco told in 2001. “You have to downplay it and be guarded. I’ve tried to do that as best I can.”

DiFrancesco decided against seeking election as governor in his own right after scrutiny of his business dealings, in one of many twists and turns in New Jersey’s political history.

Alan Rosenthal, professor of public policy at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, said a constitutional change is needed to avoid concentrating power in an acting governor.

“(The present system) certainly seems to be as much of a violation of the separation of powers as you can achieve. There should be an executive, and there should be a legislative [branch]. It’s a constitutional question,” Rosenthal said. “As long as you don’t have people resigning or dying in office, there’s no issue. But we seem to have had an issue.”

In 42 states, the lieutenant governor succeeds the governor, but in Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and West Virginia, the Senate president takes over. In Tennessee, the speaker of the House is next in line of succession. In Arizona, Oregon and Wyoming, the secretary of state succeeds the governor.

Twenty-four states choose a lieutenant governor in tandem with the governor on a shared ticket. Eighteen states elect lieutenant governors separately from the governor.

In New Jersey, the governor is the only statewide elected official besides the two U.S. senators. Codey’s ascension to chief executive will make him the most powerful governor in the country in terms of constitutional powers.

Six gubernatorial succession measures have been introduced in New Jersey’s Assembly, and four of them call for an elected lieutenant governor. Other proposals would make the Senate president vacate that office upon becoming governor and allow the Senate to choose a successor.

The longer Codey serves, the more talk there will be of creating the post of lieutenant governor, Rosenthal said.

Assembly Speaker Albio Sires (D) called Aug. 16 for New Jersey to elect a lieutenant governor and promised to fast-track legislation to create the office.

Sires said the idea is popular with New Jersey residents. He cited a February 2001 Quinnipiac Poll in which respondents, by a 72 percent to 20 percent margin, said New Jersey should rewrite its laws and allow voters to elect a lieutenant governor.

Republican businessman Doug Forrester, the party’s unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate in 2002, is running TV and radio commercials calling for an elected lieutenant governor “so we can decide who runs our state, not the party bosses.”

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D) led a fight for an electing a lieutenant governor in 2001, and he still favors the idea.

“We need to have a more solid path of succession than what our Constitutional framers spelled out nearly 50 years ago. The creation of an elected lieutenant governor would undoubtedly serve that end,” Wisniewski said.

Wisniewski said previous attempts to change the line of succession were shelved after opponents predicted a gubernatorial vacancy would rarely happen. He said current events could be a call for the Legislature to look at modifying the process. Former Gov. Thomas Kean pushed the idea of a lieutenant governor through the Assembly in 1986, but the measure failed in the Senate.

Changing the line of succession is “not without problems,” Wisniewski said, because senators supporting the creation of a lieutenant governor would be giving up the idea of “lightning striking” and instantly making them governor.

New Jersey’s Constitution, adopted in 1947, could be changed in either of two ways: the Legislature could call a constitutional convention that would put a proposal on the ballot in the next general election, or the Legislature could pass a resolution calling for a referendum to let the voters decide.

If the resolution passed both houses by just a simple majority, it must be approved twice in two consecutive years. But if it passes by a three-fifths majority, it can go on the ballot at the next general election.

New Jersey’s succession policy has been activated nearly a half dozen times, including in 1913 when Gov. Woodrow Wilson left office early to become president of the United States, said Robert Williams, professor at Rutgers Law School, Camden, N.J., and author of “The New Jersey State Constitution: A Reference Guide.”

The doctrine of separation of powers was adopted in the United States to avoid kingship, and the idea of too much power in one person’s hands, Williams said.

“One level of concern is the workload. Another level of concern is the unseemliness of the melding of two branches in one person,” Williams said.

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