As a candidate last fall for the New Jersey governorship he now holds, Republican Chris Christie vowed that if elected: “I will remake the court and I will remake it in this one simple principle. If you [want to] legislate [then] run for the Legislature, don’t put on a black robe and go to the Supreme Court and there won’t be any justices that I either reappoint or put on that court that do that.”
Just four months into the job, Christie made good on his promise. This week he broke ranks with 63 consecutive years of meaningless precedent by being the first governor to deny tenure to a sitting judge. In replacing a seven-year incumbent with a woman 17 years his junior, Christie made clear this was neither personal nor political, saying it “is not a commentary on Justice [John] Wallace [the man denied tenure]” but rather “a fulfillment of my promise to turn the court away from its history of using legal precedent to set social and tax policies in our state.”
Indeed, the New Jersey Supreme Court has a long record of ignoring the Constitution and the elected branches, choosing instead to make the state’s policy up as it goes. For instance, in two landmark decisions, Abbott and Mount Laurel, the Court has dictated how the state must spend money for its schools, and forced local governments to build low-income housing. By inventing laws rather than interpreting them, the New Jersey Supreme Court has been complicit in creating the multi-billion-dollar deficit disaster that is ravaging the state.
New Jersey and Maine are the only states in the U.S. where the governor has the authority to appoint and reappoint justices to its highest courts. (Most states rely on a “merit selection” or elections to choose their state Supreme Court justices). This is an awesome responsibility subject to abuse, cronyism and inertia.
Christie has replaced the rubber stamp of past governors and dusted off the scales of justice. It’s about time. Surveys show that only 5 percent of New Jerseyans could name any of the justices on their state’s highest court and a solid majority admits that they do not know much about the Court or its rulings. Still, they are far more certain about the qualities such justices should possess. New Jerseyans tell pollsters that a potential Justice’s “record of interpreting the law as it is written in past rulings” is important and they prefer a jurist who omits his or her personal viewpoints from due deliberation and decision-making.
The Democrat-controlled New Jersey state Senate has shown its hand, all but admitting that they view the judiciary as an extension of the Legislature rather than its check and balance. They threaten to deny Christie’s appointee, attorney Anne M. Patterson, a confirmation hearing. New Jerseyans should revolt. Politics may no longer stop at the water’s edge, but it ought to stop at the courtroom door.
Kellyanne Conway is President of the polling company(TM) and an attorney licensed in New Jersey.