The Politics of the New Jersey Supreme Court

Recently, Governor Christie had two state Supreme Court nominees confirmed by the state senate.  To understand this story, one needs to understand how state supreme court justices are chosen.  The court consists of seven members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the state senate.  They serve for an initial term of seven years after which they can be re-nominated to the bench for “tenure” which means they serve until the mandatory retirement age of 70, or death, voluntary resignation, or impeachment.

There is a historical, but unwritten tradition of political party balance on the state court.  Despite party affiliation, outgoing judges are replaced by a member of the same party despite the party affiliation of the nominating governor.  Generally, the chief justice is of the governor’s party.

When Christie was first elected in 2009, he broke this trend much to the chagrin of the state senate.  He refused to nominate Justice John Wallace, a Democrat, and Helen Hoens, a Republican when he had the opportunity.  Furthermore, he has refused to recognize Justice Jaynee LaVecchia as a Republican since she is technically an independent, but whose political affiliation runs deep into the state GOP.

The ideological balance of power is 4-3, usually in favor of the governor’s party at the time.  Christie’s efforts were an attempt to shift the balance to 5-2 in his favor.  The reason is that Christie was/is dedicated to reigning in the activism of the New Jersey Supreme Court, not necessarily to make it more “conservative.”

Because of this power play, the Democratic-controlled  state senate has refused to even consider certain Christie appointments.  In several instances, they refused to even schedule hearings.  Enter the Stuart Raubner.  Raubner was appointed chief justice by previous governor Jon Corzine for the initial 7-year term.  In the run-up to the 2009 governor’s race, GOP primary opponent Steve Lonegan questioned Christie’s support for Raubner.  That support was predicated on the fact that Raubner worked under Christie in the US Attorney’s Office in New Jersey.  Lonegan tried to portray Raubner as a hard-core liberal (and I believe he is) and questioned why Christie would support him.  Christie dismissed the liberal charges against Raubner.

When Raubner’s seven-year initial term came up for tenure, there was talk that Christie would not re-nominate him in his effort to remake the court.  This rankled state senate president, Democrat Stephen Sweeney.  Further rankling the senate leadership was Christie’s appointment of another fellow prosecutor who worked under him in his time as US prosecutor, Lee Solomon.

Solomon was in charge of southern New Jersey for Christie when he was US prosecutor.  In response to a “prison census” for federal funding purposes, the notoriously corrupt Camden County officials rounded up several hundred people- many under legitimate house arrest wearing ankle bracelets-  in order to bolster their jail figures and receive more federal funds.  When this came to light, Christie handed the investigation to Solomon.  Solomon then turned the investigation over to the state attorney general even though federal funds were involved.  At the time, the state attorney general had the nickname, “Do nothing” because that is exactly what he did.

Further complicating the whole picture and thickening the plot is the pending nomination of Kevin O’Dowd as state attorney general.    He is Christie’s former chief of staff.  The infamous Bridgett Ann Kelly- a/k/a- “Let’s close some bridge lanes” reported directly to O’Dowd.  Given this controversy, the state senate is apprehensive about moving on his confirmtion.  Unlike other states that have elected attorney generals, in New Jersey they are appointed by the gvernor and confirmed by the state senate.  In his testimony regarding the bride lane closure fiasco, O’Dowd said Kelly denied to his face having any role when damaging e-mails later showed she was the primary culprit…if O’Dowd’s rendition is to be believed.

Thus, it would appear that Christie and Sweeney brokered a deal where both Solomon and Raubner would be nominated and confirmed and the pending nomination of O’Dowd could be moved forward in the state senate.  In order to get his man advanced (O’Dowd), Christie compromised principle and was “forced” to renominate the more liberal Democrat for a tenured position as chief justice.  If he serves until age 70, he will be the longest serving state chief justice in New Jersey history.  Raubner, one may remember, is the one member of the state supreme court most instrumental in striking down the state’s civil union law and allowing gay marriage in the Garden State.  Christie, for his part, now sits back and says, “What can I do? The state supreme court has ruled in this area?”  Again, rewarding friends and former underlings is apparently taking priority over reigning in an activist state high court.

Regarding the whole lane closure controversy, no investigator has yet to uncover the smoking gun that directly links Christie to this childish act.  However, Christie’s actions are akin to the IRS scandal, which is admittedly worse than closing some lanes on a bridge.  Whereas Obama created the culture of demonization of right wing groups, (particularly Tea Party groups) Christie’s atmosphere of intimidation and “bullying” likely created a similar atmosphere in Trenton that filtered down to lower level staff eager to please their boss.  Although Lois Lerner and Bridgett Ann Kelly may have actually followed through on that atmosphere, it makes those at the top no less culpable in creation of that atmosphere.

The climate of demonization in the Obama administration and the climate of bullying in the Christie administration have much in common.  Making matters worse, when O’Dowd questioned Kelly and she denied involvement, she asked him who wanted to know and he replied “the Governor.”  Christie can now sit back and acknowledge complaints of the lane closures and tasking his chief of staff to find out what was going on, but then doing nothing.  In other words, it was a rogue employee within his staff who did all this.  Likewise, the Obama administration sits back and claims the whole IRS scandal was the doing of a rogue IRS center in Cincinnati.

The bottom line is that both Obama and Christie came into office promising to change politics as usual.  Instead, we got politics as usual squared.  Whereas Obama’s IRS targeting Tea Party groups is as bad as Richard Nixon using the IRS against political enemies, Christie’s staff is like political dirty trickster Donald Segretti hiring hookers for Democrats in 1972.  And just as Barack Obama is not qualified to hold national office, Chris Christie is likewise unqualified.  The sad part is that both will likely come out smelling like roses.

And the biggest affront in this whole story?  Lee Solomon’s wife was recently appointed to the state Board of Public Utilties.  Her previous experience?  She judged tennis matches.  Politics as usual, New Jersey style.