Rejecting Marriage Equality, NJ Senate Advances Anti-Gay Judge

On the day when the New Jersey State Senate defeated gay marriage legislation in a 20-14 vote, that body’s Judiciary Committee voted 12-1 to advance the nomination of a Municipal Court judge with an anti-gay record to be a judge in one of New Jersey’s workers’ compensation courts.

“It was certainly disappointing that the night that marriage equality failed in New Jersey that Judge Zaben got a promotion,” said Senator Bill Baroni, a Republican who represents a southern New Jersey district and cast the sole vote against Steven J. Zaben. Baroni was also the only Senate Republican to vote for the gay marriage bill on January 7.

Zaben has presided over the Municipal Court that handles cases arising in the New Jersey portion of the Palisades Interstate Park, which stretches along the west bank of the Hudson River from the George Washington Bridge to Bear Mountain in New York, since 1998.

Rejecting Marriage Equality, NJ Senate Advances Anti-Gay Judge

He heard more than 100 cases of men arrested for public lewdness in the park, with most ending in guilty pleas, and handed out harsh sentences that typically included a $1,000 fine, two years on probation, a two-year ban from the park, including use of the highway that runs through it, and, in some cases, court-supervised psychiatric counseling.

Men arrested in the park said they briefly exposed themselves only after being urged to do so by another man who turned out to be a plainclothes police officer. Under New Jersey law, such conduct is legal.

In 2005, Zaben gave a far lighter sentence to a heterosexual couple who were arrested and charged with lewdness while having sex in a car in the park. The two were also charged with littering, drinking alcohol in the park, and a parking violation.

Another 2005 case against a second heterosexual couple arrested for having sex in the park was dismissed after the conviction against the first couple was overturned on appeal.

In a 2005 case involving a gay man, one of the few that went to trial, Zaben concluded that because the defendant said he was gay that meant he was in the park “perhaps to have some type of encounter.”

The defendant testified he was in the park to have lunch and briefly exposed himself only after the arresting officer, Detective Thomas Rossi, repeatedly said, “Show me what you got… Take it out, show me what you got.”

In a stinging decision, that conviction was overturned in 2006 by a state appeals court that questioned Rossi’s honesty and Zaben’s legal reasoning.

Municipal Court judgeships are part-time jobs, typically doled out as political favors, that give lawyers some extra cash and allow them to participate in the state’s pension system.

A workers’ compensation judgeship is a full-time job and comes with a hefty salary. Workers’ compensation judges rule on worker injury cases.

Zaben was originally nominated for the workers’ compensation court position by Governor Jon Corzine’s administration, which was aware of his anti-gay record, in 2008. The outcry by Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s statewide gay lobbying group, and lawyers who practiced before Zaben stalled the nomination.

“This proven homophobe and incompetent judge has no business sitting in judgment on any court, much less being rewarded with an appointment at which he would serve only a few years until the mandatory retirement age of 70 and thereafter receive a very fat pension at taxpayers’ expense,” wrote William H. Lorentz, a former New Jersey deputy attorney general, in an email.

The full Senate will likely vote on the Zaben nomination on January 11, and its approval is expected.