November 2, 2009: Succession Shenanigans End November 3

Election Day tomorrow brings something new to the state – the election of New Jersey’s first lieutenant governor.

In most states (42 to be exact), the lieutenant governor takes over when the governor resigns, leaves the state or is incapacitated. In three states, the secretary of state or the attorney general takes over; in five states it is the state Senate president.

Until the state’s recent law change, New Jersey was one of those states where the Senate president became the acting governor when the governor could no longer serve. In New Jersey this has led to some bizarre circumstances–one where the state had six governors in just under a year and five governors who served during one week in 2002.

For those who don’t remember, that one week period was a curious one. Five people were governor of New Jersey between January 8 and January 15 in 2002.

Here’s the story:

  • Senate President Donald T. DiFrancesco was governor until January 8, 2002. When Christine Todd Whitman resigned as governor on January 31, 2001 to become head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency under President Bush, Mr. DiFrancesco served as both Senate president and governor from that date until January 8, 2002.
  • James E. McGreevey had been elected governor and was to take office on January 15, 2002.
  • On January 8, 2002, Donald T. DiFrancesco was replaced as Senate president by two senators–Senator John O. Bennett (a Republican) and Senator Richard J. Codey (a Democrat). The office was shared because the Senate was evenly divided, 20-20 between Republicans and Democrats.
  • For the one hour period separating the end of Mr. DiFrancesco’s Senate term and the appointment of the two new Senate presidents, the state’s Emergency Succession Act required Attorney General John J. Farmer, Jr. to serve as governor.
  • Once the two senators were appointed co-presidents of the Senate, a determination had to be made about who would serve as governor before the newly elected governor was officially sworn in. As co-Senate presidents, it was decided that Senator Bennett would be governor from January 8 until January 12 and Senator Cody from January 12 until January 15, when the newly elected Governor James McGreevey took office.

What New Jersey had was a bad system, as NJPP noted back in a 2004 commentary. The Senate president was elected to the Legislature to represent one of 40 legislative districts–not a state of more than 8 million. His colleagues in the Senate elected him president in a vote that required at most 21 votes. No one elected him to run the state. Further, as governor and Senate president, the person holding that office was the head of the executive branch and head of the Senate–clearly a violation of the separation of powers and a situation ripe with potential conflicts of interest.

And this is how and why New Jersey came into compliance with the majority practice in the nation. And why Tuesday November 3 will mark a new era in New Jersey history.