In a scene more common to Washington D.C., a high-stakes standoff between New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the Democratic-controlled state Senate is brewing in Trenton. The two sides are locked in what appears to be an all-out war to control the makeup of the state judiciary, and with it the shape of New Jersey government for years to come.
This week, Christie decided against reappointment for Justice John Wallace, a sitting member of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Christie instead named Anne Patterson, a lawyer with the powerful New Jersey firm of Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland, and Perretti LLP, to replace Wallace. It is the first time since New Jersey rewrote its state constitution in 1947 that a governor has refused to reappoint a sitting justice for a life term. Senate Democrats, led by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) are outraged at the move, and have vowed to block Patterson’s confirmation.
According to the state constitution, the governor nominates justices to the court, subject to the confirmation of the state Senate, for an initial seven-year term. At the end of seven years, the governor may nominate a replacement, or re-nominate the justice for life tenure, which includes mandatory retirement at age 70. Wallace, who was originally nominated by former governor Jim McGreevy (D), is 68 and would be required to step down in two years. He has served on the court since 2003.
In making the announcement, Christie said he was fulfilling a campaign pledge to reign in a court that he described as “out of control.” “The court over the course of the last three decades has…inappropriately invaded the executive and legislative constitutional functions,” Christie said. “It’s not for the court to set some of the policies that I believe that they’ve set. And I talked all during the campaign about changing the court. The only way to change the court is to change its members.”
Christie was not critical of Justice Wallace, calling him a person whom he has “great respect for, personally and professionally.” But reports indicated that the governor and the justice did not hit it off in a recent interview. At a Trenton briefing following the decision, Christie declined to cite a specific decision in which Wallace participated that influenced his decision, choosing instead to speak in general terms about his disagreement with Wallace’s overall judicial philosophy.
“If you look at his overall body of work, it represents a different philosophy — that it’s OK to legislate from the bench and I don’t think it is,” the governor said. In contrast, Christie praised Patterson’s view of the role of the judiciary. “In Anne Patterson, I believe we have a future associate justice who understands at a principled level what it means to be a member of a co-equal branch of government, with its powers and its limitations," Christie said. “I also see in her the high level of legal intellect, character and compassion that I will require of any nomination I have the privilege to make to our highest court.”
Wallace joined a controversial 2006 decision that directed the state legislature to write a law providing recognition to same-sex partnerships either through marriage or another mechanism. The state ultimately recognized civil unions, declining to approve a bill granting homosexual couples marriage rights at the end of former governor Jon Corzine’s term. Christie is an avowed opponent of same-sex marriage. The governor has also been critical of past court decisions on school funding and affordable housing that he says have cost New Jersey taxpayers millions, although Wallace did not participate in those cases.
Sweeney called the governor’s nomination of Patterson dead on arrival in the state Senate. As Senate president, Sweeney controls the bills and nominations that come up for a vote, and vowed on Tuesday to use that power to prevent Patterson from getting a hearing in the judiciary committee, effectively mounting a one-man filibuster of the governor’s nomination. “He’s sending a message, and we’re sending a message right back,” Sweeney said.
Other Democrats joined Sweeney in criticizing Christie for replacing Wallace. “It’s never been done before, and Gov. Christie has now started a dangerous precedent that I do not believe the Senate will allow to stand,” Judiciary Committee member Sen. Raymond Lesniak said. The committee chairman, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, was more direct. “Regardless of her qualifications, she’s not going to get a hearing,” he said.
The governor’s office is thus far remaining calm in the face of the Democrats’ threats to shut down the process. Spokesman Michael Drewniak said that Patterson deserved a fair hearing from the state Senate. “It is our request based on state constitution – which we know the Senate president, and the Senate as a whole, respects and embraces – that [the governor’s] nominee get a hearing and a vote,” he said.
The drama in Trenton comes as President Obama and Senate Republicans prepare to do battle in Washington over the nomination to the U. S. Supreme Court of a replacement for retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. The White House is expected to announce a nominee as early as this week. Barring any serious controversy, however, the President’s choice is eventually expected to be confirmed by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
In New Jersey, the outcome in the battle over Wallace is not so assured. Democrats have the power to prevent a hearing for the governor’s nominee, but it may come with a price. Christie is in a politically powerful position right now. His reform message is popular with voters in New Jersey – with an overwhelming majority recently heeding Christie’s call and voting to reject local school ballots in record numbers. And a recent poll showed a majority supporting his call for reform of the state public employees’ pension system. If the governor is successful at casting his nomination of Patterson as part of an overall reform of the judiciary, Democrats may have no choice but to grudgingly go along.
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