New Jersey’s state Supreme Court entered a standoff Friday after Associate Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto announced he would refuse to take part in any decisions for the foreseeable future, pitting him against the state’s Senate and the rest of the court. The move was prompted by his belief that the current makeup of the court, which includes a temporary interim judge appointed by the Chief Justice, is unconstitutional.
The standoff is the latest in Governor Chris Christie’s efforts to reform the Supreme Court, which he has characterized as being too imbalanced and activist.
Last May, after holding office for just four months, Christie – a conservative stalwart – effectively “took on” the state’s Supreme Court by becoming the first governor in 63 years to refuse to renominate a sitting justice. The move angered New Jersey’s Democratic establishment and in response, the Senate blocked the governor’s more conservative nominee by refusing to hold a hearing on the nomination.
That, in turn, led Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to appoint Appellate Judge Edwin Stern as an interim replacement to fill the seat vacated by the outgoing justice. But according to Rivera-Soto, the Chief Justice’s move is unconstitutional because the only lawful reason for a temporary replacement is if it is “necessary.”
On Friday, Rivera-Soto released a statement arguing Stern’s appointment is not necessary because the court still has enough judges to fulfill its duties without him. The appointment, said Rivera-Soto, “thrusts the judiciary into the political thicket, all the while improperly advancing one side’s views in preference over the other’s.”
Supporters of Rivera-Soto’s stance are now accusing the Senate and court majority of playing politics with Christie’s gubernatorial authority, and willfully going against the state’s constitution as an act of political retaliation against Governor Christie. But top Democrats have responded by calling for the rebellious Rivera-Soto to resign.
After Rivera-Soto’s announcement, Chief Justice Rabner fired back saying, “It is one thing to dissent from an opinion of the majority; it is another to refuse to participate—to vote—in matters before the court.” The court’s majority agreed with Rabner’s position, and supported his appointment of Stern.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Christie’s top adversary in the Senate, also called on Rivera-Soto to resign, calling his decision a “politically motivated temper tantrum”. But Sweeney is also the senator who has the power to hold a hearing on Governor’s Christie’s nominee. For seven months, he has refused to do so.
According to Earl Maltz, a law professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Rabner’s appointment of Stern is grounds for concern.
“Justice Rivera-Soto is right to be concerned about the current makeup of the court,” Maltz told The Daily Caller. “The best way to resolve the problem would be for the state senate to fulfill its constitutional responsibility by giving [Christie’s nominee] a hearing and to proceed from there.”
Gary Marx, executive director for the Judicial Crisis Network agreed, calling Rivera-Soto’s stance a “defense of the New Jersey Constitution,” and part of his “obligation to the oath of office he took when he raised his right hand.”
He went on to say, “Senate President Sweeney has created a constitutional crisis by playing partisan politics with the court. Justice Rivera-Soto has stood up to defend the New Jersey constitution and exposed the threat Senator Sweeney and his Trenton politics-as-usual poses to justice in the Garden State.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, Governor Christie’s office declined to comment specifically on the court, but blamed Democrats for causing the standoff in the first place.
“This should never have become an issue. The governor made a nomination seven months ago… It’s time now for the senate president to meet his constitutional obligation and call for a hearing,” said a spokesperson for the governor.
“Senator Sweeney has brought the high court’s entire work into question,” said Marx. “Who knows what damage this could cause?”
Rivera-Soto, the court’s first Hispanic judge, was appointed by former Democratic Governor Jim McGreevey in June of 2004.