Governors of New Jersey enjoy some of the most sweeping powers in the country. Not only can they conditionally veto legislative bills, including line-items in the budget, but they also have the rare power to appoint the state’s top prosecutors for five-year terms—albeit with the state senate’s consent.
Governor Phil Murphy, who took office in January 2018, ran in part on a criminal justice reform platform. But part of that should surely include doing the right thing with New Jersey’s rogue prosecutors. Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez, for example, will test Murphy’s resolve when her job is up for renewal in 2020.
Gov. Phil Murphy [via NJ.gov]
Prosecutors all over the country regularly exceed their authority, and this happens at a rate that distresses even federal judges. Entire news sites are dedicated to the phenomenon, like The Open File—an encyclopedic publication where everyone writes with pseudonyms, likely to avoid retaliation. Prosecutorial misconduct in the courtroom can look like hiding evidence of the accused’s innocence, striking people off juries because of their race, or making improper comments at trial.
When a prosecutor’s behavior moves toward the cruel or dictatorial but in a way that isn’t legally proscribed, voters are generally empowered to deal with it. For example, after former Harris County (Houston) District Attorney Devon Anderson jailed a rape victim to force her to testify against her rapist, she lost her re-election bid. In another instance, former Bexar County (San Antonio) District Attorney Nico LaHood threatened to destroy defense attorneys for ethically doing their job; he was voted out too. In both cases, the press played a key role in keeping the prosecutors accountable. People often look to their local papers to stay informed about what elected officials are up to.
Prosecutor Suarez has recently declared war on the media.
Esther Suarez, the incumbent Hudson County (Jersey City) prosecutor, would likely be in line for a rough re-election battle, at best, if there were one. But under New Jersey’s system, her fate will be determined largely by the governor.
Prosecutor Suarez, like former DA LaHood, has recently declared war on the media, stating during an April 2 press conference, “I’m never one to tell you to go to either NJ.com or any of those papers for actual news. There it goes, I said it.” Suarez suggested that people should rely on her Twitter feed for news instead. The comments came out during a community meeting addressing public safety concerns after a woman was raped and murdered the month before.
NJ.com is the online presence of the Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s paper of record, as well as several other papers like the Jersey Journal, which attracted most of the prosecutor’s ire. Since her initial comments, Suarez’s official Twitter account has posted about the murder case that inspired the exchange. Another Twitter user replied that, “Shameful that a life is lost and YOU finally realize that all WE the people ask for is info.”
Photo via New Jersey Government / YouTube
Suarez was sworn into office on September 17, 2015. She was celebrated upon her appointment as the first woman and first Hispanic person to take the position. Suarez, a Democrat, also looked like someone who could build bridges: Then-Governor Chris Christie, a former Republican presidential nominee who later became a notorious Trump sycophant, nominated Suarez, a daughter of immigrants from Spain.
Suarez’s brazen hatred of the press is far from the only example of how her tenure has been tarred by an authoritarian bent. For example, she also opposes marijuana legalization for adults, despite Governor Murphy pushing for legalization as a racial justice issue.
Then, in 2017, she took a swipe at New Jersey’s bold move to replace the commercial bail industry with a risk-assessment model of pretrial release—a model that has greatly reduced the state’s jail population across demographics. She argued against this by fear-mongering over a single case of a young Black man who threatened a man with a gun while free pending trial. The state legislature quickly acquiesced to her Willie Horton-esque rhetoric, bringing back a presumption of pretrial detention for any type of gun offense.
At the same time, Suarez seems to have had little success in keeping her residents safer, with reported rapes in Hudson County increasing by nearly 25 percent from her first full year on the job to her second. That was originally reported in the context of her involvement in the decision to not prosecute a high-profile rape allegation against a state politico. Suarez originally claimed she was not personally involved, but later conceded that she viewed four emails about the case but did not “did not read the substance of them.”
To his credit, Governor Murphy has removed at least one rogue prosecutor before.
Whether Suarez is capable of addressing police corruption issues in her jurisdiction’s largest city is another pertinent question. For example, Suarez led a failed, factually dubious prosecution for alleged theft against police Lieutenant Kelly Chesler—a woman who appears to be a whistleblower and sexual harassment victim. Former Jersey City Police Chief Robert Cowan, who unsuccessfully tried to warn Jersey City Public Safety Director James Shea about his successor’s corruption, called Chesler and one other officer “by far the most competent, honest and conscientious police commanders” he oversaw. Cowan’s successor, Phil Zacche, was convicted of corruption in federal court, while Chesler was acquitted of the state charges.
To his credit, Governor Murphy has removed at least one rogue prosecutor before. Last year, he refused to re-appoint former Ocean County Prosecutor Joe Coronato, another Chris Christie appointee.
Coronato was so lacking in basic empathy for people who use drugs that he boasted to senior citizens that he got funding for “recovery coaches” who would intercept people rescued from overdose “while the teardrops are warm.” Coronato said the purpose of this was to exile drug users “to a treatment facility in Arizona or Texas—out to the desert—and get them away from their friends and contacts.” Coronato’s idea that cutting drug users off from their loved ones is helpful for recovery is a harmful myth. Shipping off kids to poorly vetted, out-of-state rehabs can have devastating consequences for families.
Will Governor Murphy take a similar stand against Suarez? While Coronato and Suarez are both highly problematic, an important difference from Murphy’s perspective is that Coronato is a Republican, while Suarez (like Murphy) is a Democrat.
However, there is a growing consensus that criminal justice reform is not partisan, but simply about good government. If Gov. Murphy wants to show that he is serious about reforming the criminal justice system like he said on the campaign trail, cutting Suarez loose is one way to do it.
Correction, April 8: This article was updated to clarify the veto powers of New Jersey governors.
Correction, April 11: This article was updated to reflect that Kelly Chesler is currently a police officer, not formerly as previously stated.
Photo of Newark, Hudson County by Ken Lund via Wikimedia Commons