Gavel Grab

Judicial Independence Threatened in NJ?

New Jersey Gov. Christopher J. Christie’s refusal to routinely reappoint a state Supreme Court justice has stirred a furious controversy and charges the governor is jeopardizing judicial independence.

Protested an editorial in The Press of Atlantic City, “By removing a respected justice with an unblemished record for purely ideological reasons, Christie has undermined the independence and credibility of the Supreme Court.”

“Both political parties are locked in a high stakes game of political chicken over the future of the state Supreme Court,” reported a Newark Star-Ledger article. (The newspaper provided a primary source for this post.)

New Jersey’s current chief justice, who once worked for Christie and was described as a confidante of the governor, said he was “disappointed.” Justice Stuart Rabner added:

“Citizens who turn to the courts for relief are entitled to have their cases resolved by impartial judges who focus only on the even-handed pursuit of justice; litigants should never have to worry that a judge may be more concerned about how a decision could affect his or her reappointment.”

Warned former New Jersey Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, “The signal is be careful how you carry out your task of judging because that may affect whether you get tenure or not. And that affects the independence of the judiciary.”

When Christie (photo above right) declined to reappoint sitting Justice John E. Wallace Jr. (photo above left), it marked the first time a New Jersey governor did not reappoint a justice who had sought it since the state constitution was rewritten 63 years ago, according to a New York Times article.

It also marked the first time in 16 years that the court will not have a black jurist. Justice Wallace is African-American. Christie named Anne Patterson, a lawyer and significant donor to Republicans .

While Christie, a Republican, did not single out any court rulings to criticize, he “described the historically liberal court as ‘out of control’ over the last three decades, usurping the roles of the governor and the Legislature in setting social and tax policies,” according to the Times.

A state Supreme Court justice in New Jersey is appointed for a seven-year term at first. If a governor reappoints the justice, he or she has tenure until retiring at age 70. Justice Wallace is 68.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, controls what nominations receive confirmation hearings, and he is blocking the nomination of Patterson.

“We have never seen a political court battle like the one shaping up in New Jersey,” commented the Wall Street Journal Law Blog.

An official with the New Jersey NAACP contended race could not be removed from the controversy and denounced what he called a “slap in the face.”

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  2. Gavel Grab » A New Tempest for NJ High Court December 16th, 2010 3:15 pm

    […] controversy followed, and charges flew that the governor was jeopardizing judicial independence (see Gavel Grab). He appointed Anne Patterson, a lawyer and significant donor to Republicans. Senate Democrats, […]

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