The People Should Choose Who Fills the Shoes

By Jon Shure


For many years, New Jersey’s system for filling the vacancy caused by a governor leaving office before the end of the term to which he or she was elected received little attention. From 1935, when Gov. A. Harry Moore resigned to serve in the US Senate, to 2001, when Gov. Christie Whitman stepped down to become head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, no governor left office ahead of schedule. But now the succession system is about to be activated for the second time in less than four years.

Unlike almost every other state, in New Jersey a gubernatorial vacancy is filled by the senate president, who under the 1947 state constitution assumes the duties of the governor and the title of acting governor while also continuing as senate president. This system has some major drawbacks:

-By serving as head of the executive branch of government and half of the legislative branch, the acting governor violates the separation of powers intended as a safeguard against too much power being concentrated in one place.
-The acting governor was not elected statewide, but only by voters to a Senate seat in one legislative district, so he or she has no mandate from the general public.
-If the senate president and governor are from different political parties, the person who becomes acting governor would, in addition to not having been elected to lead the state, be from the party the voters rejected for that duty.

In 42 states, these issues do not exist. Each of those states has a lieutenant governor, designated by the constitution or by statute to become governor (not just to assume the powers but to be governor and hold the office in every aspect) if the person in the top spot vacates that office.

Of the eight states with no lieutenant governor, four turn the governorship over to the presiding officer of the Senate-Maine, New Hampshire, Tennessee and West Virginia. In the other three states-Arizona, Oregon and Wyoming-the secretary of state is next in line to be governor. It is important to note that, unlike in New Jersey, in those three states and most others the secretary of state is an elected position. Arizona in the near future is expected to eliminate the office of secretary of state and replace it with lieutenant governor.

Many wonder why New Jersey is not among those states. In fact, establishment of a lieutenant governorship was considered at the 1947 Constitutional Convention. The League of Women Voters endorsed the idea, as did several other groups and some former governors. But the measure never came before the entire body because it was defeated in committee by a 6-3 vote (four of the six were State Senators, all of whom later became Senate President and thus were in line to be acting governor).

Resolutions calling for amending the state constitution to create a lieutenant governor were introduced by the Assembly in the early 1980s, but got nowhere. Then in 1986, Gov. Thomas Kean, in his first State of the State address after winning reelection by a landslide, called for the position. Later that year, the Assembly passed, 63 to 12, a resolution that would have placed on the ballot a proposal to amend the state constitution by creating the office of lieutenant governor-only to have the measure defeated in the Senate, 24 to 11.

Now New Jersey has a chance not only to convert its succession system into one that is clear and sensible, but also to learn from the best approaches being used around the country. There are many options from which to choose.

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