New Meaning from an Old Story

Speculation that longtime Superior Court Judge Mathias E. Rodriguez, who retired last week, may run for the State Assembly brings back memories from my early days as a State House reporter.

When then-Governor Tom Kean nominated Rodriguez to a Superior Court judgeship in 1988, I was covering the State House for The News Tribune of Woodbridge.  Rodriguez lived in Perth Amboy so his nomination had a local interest for us.  Still it was more or less a routine story – until a veteran reporter from another newspaper tipped me off that Rodriguez’ nomination was being blocked by Senatorial Courtesy and that Kean, the author of The Politics of Inclusion, was upset that the nomination of a Hispanic to a judgeship was being delayed.  My reporter friend wasn’t interested in the story for his paper since Perth Amboy was far from its circulation area, but he suggested that if I could find a way to ask the governor about the nomination – and if I could do it when no other reporters were around – it would evoke the type of response that would result in a good story.

The next day Kean had a photo op in the Governor’s Outer Office.  As was his style, he stayed at the podium afterward to answer questions from the State House press corps.  I waited patiently as reporter after reporter obtained the information he or she needed for their stories and then departed.  The wire services were the last to leave, and then I asked the governor if Rodriguez’ nomination was being held up.  Kean indicated that a member of the Middlesex County delegation had yet to sign off on the nomination. He also made it clear that he felt it was important for New Jersey to have more Hispanics on the bench.

I had my story. It ran on page 1 the next day, and shortly thereafter the lone holdout in the Middlesex delegation signed off on the nomination, clearing the way for Rodriguez to become a Superior Court judge.

I found a copy of the story the other day.  Aside from bringing back some personal memories, the article provided an interesting perspective on the recent confirmation process for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic to sit on the high court.

During the confirmation process, Sotomayor’s 2001 statement that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life” drew the ire of conservatives and some Republican senators.

Back in 1988, Kean – a Republican governor – said it would be tragic if Rodriguez’ nomination was not confirmed because it was important to have individuals with Hispanic heritage on the bench.

“We desperately want to appoint more minorities, particularly people who have Hispanic heritage, to the courts,” he said at the time.

More than two decades later, the issue of Hispanics and the courts played out on the national stage – more evidence that New Jersey is indeed a bellwether state.  Whether it’s how businesses adjust to changes in the economy, how the state approaches the problems of sprawl and congestion, or how society plans for a larger, older population, what happens in New Jersey today is likely to have an impact on our nation tomorrow.

It happened in 1988 and it could happen again this year – with health care, with clean energy or with any other issue that is rising to the forefront in our densely populated state.

All the more reason for the eyes of the nation to focus on the Garden State.

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