Christie Went Too Far in Threatening Head of NJ Supreme Court

Christie Went Too Far in Threatening Head of NJ Supreme Court

For a smart guy (who reminded us he was the president of his high school class), Gov. Chris Christie has forgotten an old and important maxim in politics — "Be careful who you hurt on the way up because they will be waiting for you on the way down."

The politician who was an early favorite as the Republican candidate for president of the United States is now under attack from almost every direction. That includes an investigation by the state legislature and U.S. attorney into the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge; allegations related to federal Hurricane Sandy funds, and more recently an investigation into the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. 

On May 22 an editorial by the Editorial Board of the Star-Ledger newspaper criticized the governor for considering the removal of the chief justice of the state's Supreme Court. The editorial said, in part:

"It should come as a great relief not just to the legal community, but to everyone in New Jersey, that Stuart Rabner will remain at the helm of our state Supreme Court. He is that rare figure who commands universal and bipartisan respect, and we are remarkably lucky to have him on the bench.

"He has a sharp legal mind, an even temperament and a proven willingness to stand up for the court's independence in rulings that limit Gov. Chris Christie's most brazen overreaches — such as dissolving the Council on Affordable Housing and shortchanging aid to urban schools.

"But sticking up for Rabner was about more than defending the job of a respected judge. It was about protecting the integrity of our entire judicial system. Because strangely enough, it was the chief justice's unshakable integrity that threatened his reappointment by Christie in the first place.

"The governor has made no secret of his contempt for the judiciary, scorning judges whose rulings displease him as 'unresponsive public servants' and 'the exalted elite.' Despite his magnanimous words for Rabner at yesterday's news conference, Christie had signaled he was seriously considering removing the chief justice, who has had a role in a number of progressive issues such as bail reform and marriage equality.

"Christie has long spoken of his desire to reshape our state's top court, and dismissed Rabner as liberal and 'activist.' This ideological attack on the court is all about putting on a show of defiance for Republican primary voters in 2016. But when he threatened Rabner's reappointment, Christie went too far.

"Chopping off the head of our highest court, in the style of an old world oligarch, would have signaled to everyone that Rabner is not really in charge of a coequal branch of government. It would have been a devastating, unprecedented blow to judicial independence in New Jersey.

"Think about it: If Christie dumped Rabner, what judge up for reappointment would want to enforce an open public records request for Bridgegate documents?

"Rabner's reappointment is a big win for democracy. But make no mistake: judicial independence is still threatened in New Jersey. It began when Christie broke tradition by removing state Supreme Court Justice John Wallace for purely political reasons — the first time in modern history that a sitting justice was not granted tenure — and continued when he did the same thing to Justice Helen Hoens. 

"Even as the governor dismissed the threat to judicial independence yesterday as a 'crock,' he made it clear that he still believes he has the right to replace justices for ideological reasons. The state constitution, Christie said, 'doesn't put any restrictions on the governor in terms of how to make that judgment.'"

Beau Weisman, Editor