HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html New Jersey's Acting Governor Calls For Resignation Of
Pubdate: Fri, 06 Apr 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Author: Laura Mansnerus


TRENTON  --  Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco called today on Justice 
Peter G. Verniero to resign from the New Jersey Supreme Court, saying that 
even given "every benefit of doubt," he misled the State Senate about 
racial profiling in his confirmation hearings two years ago. But Justice 
Verniero turned aside the request, as he has a growing number of calls for 
him to quit.

Mr. DiFrancesco said that if the justice did not resign, he would ask his 
colleagues in the Senate, where he is president, to consider a censure 
resolution. He said that would not preclude impeachment, which is the only 
way to remove a justice. But only the Assembly can impeach, and Assembly 
leaders say they are not prepared to act soon.

In a somber announcement, awaited since the Senate Judiciary Committee 
asked him in a meeting Tuesday night to urge the resignation, the acting 
governor said Mr. Verniero "withheld or misrepresented important 
information" in his 1999 testimony about how he handled allegations of 
racial profiling while he was state attorney general.

The committee, which has been revisiting those allegations in its current 
hearings on racial profiling, called for Justice Verniero's resignation 
yesterday. He testified last week, but said he could not recall many key 
documents and meetings, and he turned down the committee's request that he 
return to clarify statements he made in 1999.

Starting in 1996, the year Mr. Verniero took office, internal state police 
audits showed that black and Hispanic drivers were far more likely than 
whites to be stopped and searched on the New Jersey Turnpike. But Mr. 
Verniero, who oversaw the force, did not acknowledge the practice until 
1999, on the eve of his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. When the 
committee asked when he had learned of this evidence, Mr. Verniero said his 
office had started gathering "underlying data" in 1998, after the wounding 
of three young men by state police on the turnpike turned racial profiling 
into a national issue.

Mr. DiFrancesco, who enthusiastically supported Mr. Verniero when he was 
nominated to the court by Gov. Christie Whitman, said today that if they 
had known then what they know now, "many senators, including me, would not 
have supported the Verniero nomination."

His announcement stepped up the pressure on Justice Verniero by 
Republicans, including the party leaders who rescued his Supreme Court 
nomination. The entire Legislature is up for election in November. And Mr. 
DiFrancesco, who is seeking a full term as governor, has himself been 
criticized in recent weeks over past business practices while he was State 
Senate president.

Mr. DiFrancesco said he telephoned Justice Verniero today but would not 
discuss the conversation.

In a statement issued through his lawyer, Justice Verniero said he was not 
considering stepping down. He said he had testified truthfully both in his 
confirmation hearings and in his 13-hour appearance before the Senate 
committee last week.

All 11 members of the committee, which is examining the state's response to 
racial profiling by the state police, called for Justice Verniero's 
resignation Wednesday in a strongly worded letter to the acting governor.

Justice Verniero said today that "I misled no one. The committee's 
conclusions are based on flawed, one-sided and incomplete information," his 
statement said. "The committee's conclusions are unfounded and unfair."

Since Justice Verniero can be removed from office only by impeachment by 
the Assembly and conviction by the Senate, attention here is turning to the 
Assembly, where proceedings would have to originate. The Assembly's next 
session is May 3, unless Speaker Jack Collins calls a special session.

Mr. Collins has been closeted in redistricting sessions all week, and a 
spokesman, Chuck Leitgeb, said today that Assembly leaders would not make 
any decision until the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a report on the 
hearings. The hearings are scheduled to resume Monday and may extend into 
the following week.

But the chairman of the committee, William L. Gormley, said tonight that 
"I'm available to prep them tomorrow if they want to go over the testimony 
and the issues."

Mr. Collins has called a special session only once since becoming speaker 
in 1996, and that was for emergency aid after Hurricane Floyd, Mr. Leitgeb 

No New Jersey Supreme Court justice has ever been impeached, at least since 
the court was reconstituted as a seven-member panel in 1947, and legal 
experts say the state Constitution's impeachment provision is ambiguous. It 
gives the Legislature two years from the time an official leaves office to 
impeach for conduct "committed during their respective continuance in 
office." Mr. Verniero resigned as attorney general on May 14, 1999.

But there is doubt among legal experts whether Justice Verniero committed 
any impeachable offense and, if he did, whether he could be removed from 
the bench for conduct as attorney general.

Stephen Presser, a law professor at Northwestern University who has written 
on impeachment, said that in the case of Justice Verniero's testimony, 
especially since it involved a highly politicized issue, "the impeachment 
argument is not ridiculous, but it's quite a stretch."

But Professor Presser said that although he could not recall any instance 
of an official being impeached for conduct in a previous office, "if it's 
about the character of the person it is relevant."

Justice Verniero could also be denied reappointment after his initial 
seven-year term, which ends in 2006. Mr. DiFrancesco said today that if he 
was governor then, he would not renominate Mr. Verniero.

But Mr. DiFrancesco, like many others, said he hoped that Justice Verniero 
would voluntarily step down soon.
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