Gavel Grab

Editorial: Retiring N.J. Judge a Political ‘Drive-By Victim’

Upon the retirement of New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens, whom Gov. Chris Christie declined to reappoint in a feud with state Senate Democrats, the Newark Star-Ledger editorial page blog called her a “drive-by victim in a political game.”

The editorial blog commended Justice Hoens for what she didn’t say in remarks upon her retirement. “To her credit, Hoens leaves without taking a parting shot,” it said. “She noted the ‘roiling waters of politics that swamped the little boat of my judicial career,’ but resisted the urge for more critical final words.”

To learn about Republican Gov. Christie’s decision not to reappoint Justice Hoens, amid his efforts to change the face of the state Supreme Court, see Gavel Grab.  The governor appoints justices subject to state Senate confirmation in New Jersey, in a system similar to the federal model for appointing judges, with some significant differences.

A separate Newark Star-Ledger article about Justice Hoens’ speech was headlined, “N.J. Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens bids farewell in personal speech.”


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Retired Judges to Lead NJ Panel on Judicial Appointments Struggle

Two retired New Jersey judges will chair a task force for the state Bar Association, established to recommend fixes for an ongoing conflict between Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the state Senate’s Democratic majority over judicial appointments and their confirmation.

The task force on judicial independence will do its work for as long as the “current threats to weaken our judiciary” remain, said Ralph Lamparello, the Bar association president, according to a Newark Star-Ledger article.

He said that “since the 1947 state constitution, which resulted in the wholesale remaking of our New Jersey courts, there has been no more paramount issue facing us as a profession than the current threats to weaken our judiciary by undermining its independence.” Read more

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Editorial Assails ‘Carnage of our Judicial System’ in New Jersey

“The carnage of our judicial system must stop,” a New Jersey Law Journal editorial argues in condemning what it sees as a weakening of judicial tenure, and as a result, independence, in an apparent political deal.

Gov. Chris Christie announced in August he would not renominate a veteran jurist, state Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens, and instead he nominated a sitting lower court judge who is a native of Cuba and would bring ethnic diversity to the court. Christie is a Republican; the state Senate president, a Democrat, said hearings would be held on the new nomination.

In New Jersey, judges stand for reappointment after seven years in office, and once reappointed, they serve until they reach the age of 70. The editorial said removal of Justice Hoens and her replacement by Judge Faustino Fernandez-Vina would set a precedent making it normal for justices to serve but one, seven-year term before being replaced. Christie also declined to renominate another justice in 2010.

Christie had no ideological complaint with Justice Hoens but feared she would not be confirmed by the state Senate, the editorial said. “If the terms of the deal are right, it appears that the governor and Senate are perfectly willing to replace a well-qualified sitting justice for no reason other than political expediency,” it added. Read more

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Analyst: New Jersey Judicial Confirmation Stalemate Begs For Reform

In the wake of a partisan impasse over filling judicial vacancies in New Jersey, some analysts are scratching their heads to find a better way. In a Trenton Times guest opinion, public policy analyst Carl Golden examines one reform, for setting a timetable in which the Senate must act to confirm a nominee.

New Jersey has a system for nominating and confirming top judges that is similar to the model used by the federal government. Under New Jersey’s system, the governor nominates a judge subject to Senate confirmation, and a single senator can block the nomination of an individual from his or her home county under a tradition called “courtesy.”

This system, Golden says, “is ripe for stalemate,” as shown by the recent standoff between Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and Democrats controlling the Senate. It’s gotten so bad that to some, it appears the state Supreme Court nomination process has become totally politicized:

“Officers of the state Bar Association, as well as several former judges and judiciary officials, fretted publicly that the court system had become just another campaign stop resembling a candidate’s shaking hands at a local diner.”

Golden appears favorable to a proposal which has not gained political traction in the past, for a constitutional amendment that would require the Senate to act on judicial nominations within a set time period, or automatic confirmation would follow. Read more

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Editorial Calls for Compromise in N.J. Judicial Nominations Fight

Another New Jersey editorial board is calling for compromise between Republican Gov. Chris Christie and state Senate Democrats over judicial nominees, saying the state Supreme Court is getting hurt by an “ongoing Hatfield-McCoy playground battle.”

“[T]here  comes a time when both sides need to put aside gamesmanship, finger-pointing and obstructionism, and do the right thing,” said the Vineland Daily Journal editorial. “In this case, the right thing is working together so that the highest court in the state is functioning as it should, and serving justice to those who come before it to plead their case.”

To learn more about the political standoff over high court nominations, and Christie’s latest judicial pick, see Gavel Grab.

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Editorial: Political ‘Games’ Threaten N.J. Court’s Reputation

In assessing a political standoff over judicial nominations in New Jersey, a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial says Gov. Chris Christie has made mistakes, but the state Senate must proceed to consider his nominees for the New Jersey Supreme Court.

“Christie did indeed show poor judgment in his rush to reshape the court after his own conservative ideology,” the editorial says, mentioning the governor’s decision against reappointing Justice John Wallace Jr. in 2010. Responding to that action, Senate Democrats have blocked or stalled action on several Christie nominees to the court. The governor is a Republican.

“But the ensuing stalemate has left the seven-member court with two vacancies, which the chief justice has filled with temporarily promoted lower-court judges. Like it or not, Christie has the right to choose nominees, and it’s incumbent upon the Senate to vet and vote on them without prejudice,” the editorial declares. Christie recently nominated Judge Faustino Fernandez-Vina for the court, while declining to renominate Justice Helen Hoens (see Gavel Grab). The editorial concludes: Read more

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Article: Impartial Justice Threatened by N.J. Nominations ‘War’

“All-out war” between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and state Senate Democrats over judicial nominations is threatening impartial justice, the Newark Star-Ledger reports.

The struggle “has sent a chill in courthouses across New Jersey as judges worry about potential political payback for controversial decisions, judges and legal experts say,” according to the newspaper. Here are remarks by key players:

  • Assignment Judge Peter Doyne of Bergen County said, “There appears now to be concerns among nontenured judges that I don’t recall having occurred 10 to 20 years ago. I think judges now may be more mindful than they had been when they are handling potentially more volatile and noteworthy cases.”
  • Retired New Jersey Chief Justice Deborah Poritz called for consideration of a constitutional revision to grant lifetime tenure for judges, instead of initial seven-year terms. Regarding two justices whom Christie chose not to reappoint, she said,  ”What matters is they have both served well Read more

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Editorials: Politics Playing Havoc With N.J. Supreme Court Nominations

Partisan political gamesmanship has overtaken the nomination and confirmation process for justices on the New Jersey Supreme Court, two editorials suggest in commenting on this week’s developments.

Gov. Chris Christie’s nomination of Judge Faustino Fernandez-Vina, and his declining to renominate Justice Helen Hoens (see Gavel Grab), has sparked controversy and prompted various analyses of a process that has become gridlocked, to the point the court’s reputation may be harmed.

A Herald-News editorial declared that the Republican governor’s latest nominee — and two earlier ones, whose nominations have languished — deserve hearings in the Democratic-controlled state Senate.

“Nothing is happening because Democrats want political payback in perpetuity,” the editorial said, suggesting that Christie is facing the retaliation for his decision not to renominate Justice John Wallace Jr. in 2010. ”Christie’s decision to not renominate Wallace was wrong. But not allowing the governor to have his judicial choices on the high court’s bench if they are indeed qualified to sit on the bench only proves that two wrongs make for bad government.” Read more

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Editorial Sees ‘Dysfunction’ in New Jersey Judicial Confirmation Politics

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s decision not to renominate a sitting state Supreme Court justice, and to appoint a lower court judge to succeed her (see Gavel Grab), sparked editorial page outcries.

Christie is a Republican. The New Jersey Senate, which must confirm a nominee to the Supreme Court, is controlled by Democrats and has balked at confirming two recent Christie nominees for the high court. The judge whom Christie declined to renominate — Justice Helen Hoens — is a Republican, and her nominated successor — Judge Faustino Fernandez-Vina –  is said by Christie to be a Republican.

A Newark Star-Ledger editorial slammed Christie for a “partisan stunt.” The governor had said he feared Democrats would not confirm Justice Hoens to a new term and he did not want to “let her loose to the animals.” But the editorial condemned that reasoning as an “imagined lynching” and said the fight really was over a Democratic majority on the court and Christie’s efforts to disrupt it. A compromise is needed, the editorial said:

“What’s needed is a compromise that respects the traditional partisan balance on the court. Until Christie agrees to appoint another Democrat to one of the three vacancies, he is not going to get his way on this fight no matter how much he huffs and puffs.”
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Commentary: In Gov. Christie’s Conduct, a Threat to Fair Courts

In  Gov. Chris Christie’s recent verbal attack on New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner (see Gavel Grab), some critics are continuing to see a grave threat to judicial independence.

(Newark) Star-Ledger op-ed warning about these concerns was written by Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action. Christie “has attempted to make the court more partisan and more divided than it has been in modern history,” she wrote.

Salowe-Kaye specificially referenced the decision by Christie, a Republican, not to reappoint Democratic appointee Justice John Wallace Jr. in 2010. It was the first time a New Jersey governor did not reappoint a justice who had sought it since the state constitution was rewritten 63 years earlier.

Salowe-Kaye asserted that Justice Rabner could be in for the same treatment, and she said Christie’s record may be disconcerting for impartial judges:

“Under the Christie governorship, every nontenured justice must worry whether his decisions could put him in disfavor with the governor and cost him his job. As Rabner said in a statement criticizing the decision not to Read more

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