Should N.J. attorney general be elected by the people? Guadagno thinks so

New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who is running for governor, has proposed making the state attorney general an elected office.

The position of New Jersey governor is considered the strongest in the country. One of the leading contenders in the 2017 race to occupy that office wants to weaken it.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a Republican, is proposing that voters elect the state’s attorney general, a process used by 43 states, including Pennsylvania.

Currently, the state’s top law enforcement official is appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate.

One of Guadagno’s steepest political challenges — in addition to running in a Democratic-leaning state — is persuading voters that despite her proximity to Gov. Christie, who polls say is deeply unpopular, she would bring change.

“I think that we will start to regain some of the trust that we’ve lost over the years,” Guadagno says of the proposal, a nod to voters’ discontent with the status quo in Trenton.

Guadagno, who has been Christie’s second-in-command for seven years, says in a campaign video released Wednesday that she’s “positive that Trenton insiders won’t like an independent attorney general.”

“His or her obligation will be to the people of the state of New Jersey, not to anybody else," she says. "And that’s the kind of government the people of New Jersey are entitled to.”

The change wouldn’t come overnight. It would require a constitutional amendment and faces an uphill political battle.

There hasn’t been much public polling on the issue, but a 2005 Monmouth University survey of New Jersey residents found that 75 percent supported being able to elect the attorney general.

Even when told this would require the candidate to raise money from contributors, residents said, 54 percent to 34 percent, that an elected attorney general would be more independent than one appointed by the governor.

Patrick Murray, director of the university’s polling institute, sees merit in the idea but said it wouldn’t address the problem identified by Guadagno.

“The loss in trust in government has simply to do with the fact that a significant segment of the electorate believes that those in power simply aren’t looking at the policy issues that are first and foremost on the typical New Jerseyan’s mind,” he said. “Having an elected attorney general is not going to fix that.”

The idea is kicked around by legislators and editorial writers every couple of years. Rarely, though, do gubernatorial candidates ask voters for less power.

Proponents argue that an elected attorney general would have more autonomy and therefore be less likely to bend to the will of the governor. It would also create a third statewide elected position, which could expand opportunities for political advancement.

Critics of administrations from Democrat Jim McGreevey’s in the early 2000s to Christie’s today contend that state prosecutors have been reluctant to investigate the governor’s office, given that the attorney general is appointed by the governor.

That argument was amplified by the fact that for three years, Christie refused to submit a nominee to the state Senate for confirmation, as envisioned by the state constitution. That left the state with an acting attorney general.

While other cabinet appointees serve at the pleasure of the governor, the constitution says the attorney general shall serve during the term of the office of the governor.

Legal scholars believe this distinction protects the attorney general from being fired without cause; however, without Senate confirmation, some argued acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman lacked that protection during his two-plus years in office.

Under Christie, the attorney general declined to defend one of the state’s gun laws in court — a decision many political observers believe was influenced by the Republican governor’s national political ambitions.

In one confounding episode, it took an entire year for the state medical examiner, who reports to the attorney general, to determine whether a state pathologist correctly ruled that former Cooper Health CEO John P. Sheridan Jr. killed himself in September 2014.

The office of Attorney General Christopher Porrino announced last month that the medical examiner had changed the manner of death from suicide to undetermined.

From an administrative standpoint, an elected attorney general would also likely provide more continuity in office, reducing the turnover seen over the last 15-some years. (There have been 11 since 2002.)

The chief argument against the elective model is that prosecutors could be tempted to view legal matters, including criminal prosecutions, with an eye toward reelection or higher office.

In her 2012 campaign for Pennsylvania attorney general, Democrat Kathleen G. Kane accused Republican Tom Corbett of treading lightly in his investigation of the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal because of Corbett’s political aspirations.

Kane won, but once in office, she concluded there was no evidence that Corbett, who was running for governor in 2012, had slowed the investigation for political reasons.

(Kane later resigned after being convicted of perjury and other crimes.)

Adopting the elective model “would begin to erode” the powers of New Jersey’s historically strong governor, said Robert F. Williams, an expert on state constitutional law at Rutgers-Camden.

The Garden State’s governor was among the weakest in the country prior to the adoption of the 1947 constitution, he said, when the framers strengthened the governorship with more power over appointments and the budget, as well as greater veto authority.

Williams said the New Jersey framers were inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stewardship of the country through the Depression and World War II.

“People credited a powerful leader with that. And they thought, 'Let’s do that here,' ” Williams said. In part, that was a response to governors’ being controlled by political bosses such as Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, who served from 1917 to 1947.

Stripping the governor of the authority to appoint the attorney general wouldn’t be a huge blow, Williams said, but it “could begin a trend to begin to chip away at gubernatorial power,” such as by electing prosecutors and judges.

One quirk in Guadagno’s proposal: County prosecutors would continue to be appointed by the governor, subject to Senate confirmation, but they would report to the independently elected attorney general.

Thus, county prosecutors might have conflicting loyalties.

To be sure, Guadagno’s plan is vague: For example, she hasn’t said whether the attorney general would be subject to term limits.

Campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz noted that at least one proposal had been introduced in the Legislature, and said Guadagno “would be open to considering a number of proposals.”

That legislation, pending since 2014, was introduced by Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak, a Democrat who is also running for governor.