The state Attorney General's Office took over for the Morris County Prosecutor's Office Friday morning, removing Robert Bianchi as the county's top lawman at the request of the governor.
Gov. Chris Christie requested the move in order "to promote an orderly and speedy transition to Prosecutor (Robert) Bianchi's successor, and to ensure uniform and efficient criminal law enforcement in Morris County," an Attorney General's Office spokesman said.
Fredric Knapp, a Florham Park attorney who had been nominated by Christie in June to be the next county prosecutor, but never was considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee, was sworn in as acting county prosecutor on Friday.
Democratic State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a Bianchi supporter and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the supersession came as a shock, everyone in the prosecutor's office was stunned, and he thought the move was unconstitutional.
The Attorney General's Office said Christie was acting within his powers.
"The Governor has nominated Fredric M. Knapp to be Morris County Prosecutor, and the nominee currently awaits a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee," Attorney General spokesman Leland Moore said.
"In the interim, the Governor has requested that the Attorney General supersede in the best interests of the state. The supersession is taking place today to promote an orderly and speedy transition to Prosecutor Bianchi's successor, and to ensure uniform and efficient criminal law enforcement in Morris County."
Bianchi had been serving as county prosecutor even though his five-year term officially ended June 22. Bianchi recently announced he was assuming the prosecution of two high-profile cases even though he was not sure when he would be replaced. Bianchi had said in June he would work to ensure a smooth transition. An attempt to reach Bianchi for comment on Friday was not immediately successful.
In making the request, Christie "is exercising clear and long-standing statutory authority to take such an action," Moore said.
"Prosecutor Bianchi was sworn-in to a five-year term on June 22, 2007," he said. "His term as Prosecutor expired six months ago. ... the Governor is acting on the basis of long-standing powers granted him by the Legislature, and his action is consistent with all Constitutional and statutory authority."
The Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to consider dozens of nominees at a meeting on Thursday, but Knapp was not listed on the agenda. State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the committee's chairman, did not respond to messages before the meeting about what was happening with the nomination.
Christie's deputy press secretary had said the governor wants Knapp to have a fair hearing.
"Since the Governor filed his nomination, it continues to languish in the Senate," Sean Conner, Christie's deputy press secretary, said in an email last week. "The Governor continues to fully support Mr. Knapp and hopes he will receive a fair, open hearing and an up or down vote."
Lesniak said the supersession would be overturned if challenged because the state Constitutition "is clear that county prosecutors serve until their successor is confirmed by the Senate."
"It's clearly unconstitutional and, if challenged in court, it will be overturned," he said.
Lesniak said Bianchi called to tell him what happened.
"Everybody in the office is just stunned," Lesniak said.
While he's only one member of the Judiciary Committee, Lesniak said his recommendation would be for the committee to consider the nomination and vote against it.
Bianchi "is one of the most highly regarded county prosecutors in the state, and one of the few who tries the most difficult cases and is very good at it," Lesniak said. He said county prosecutor is an incredibly important position.
"Mr. Knapp may be a good lawyer, but he certainly doesn't have any criminal law experience to speak of. And certianly in comparison to Prosecutor Bianchi's experience and credentials, he's a lightweight in the criminal justice arena."
Lesniak said there was a supersession in Gloucester County amid concerns with irregularities in the office, but that was not the case here.
"No one could possibly suggest that there's good cause to remove Prosecutor Bianchi from office," he said.