New Jersey Governor Chris Christie could, if he so wished, build a working majority of Justices of the Supreme Court in a single term of office. His decision to do that–or not–will likely become an issue in the 2011 elections and certainly in the 2013 elections.
Christie surprised everyone, friend and foe alike, by his decision earlier this month not to reappoint Associate Justice John E. Wallace, Jr. Colunnist Paul Mulshine of The Star-Ledger (Newark), seemingly still bitter ever since Christie won the gubernatorial primary against Mulshine’s personal friend Rick Merkt and ideological fellow-thinker Steve Lonegan, was as recently as April 25 echoing Merkt’s sour prediction that Christie would reappoint Wallace, and that the Court would have a working liberal majority for the foreseeable future. Christie’s actual decision so surprised Mulshine that it was not until two iterations of his column that Mulshine came close to acknowledging that he had been grossly mistaken.
Since then, of course, the Senate, and particularly Senator Stephen Sweeney (D-3-Gloucester), the President of the Senate and the most powerful politician in New Jersey except for the governor, has declared open war. The Star-Ledger‘s anonymous “Auditor” took note of this and also said that Sweeney is likely planning to run against Christie in 2013. If so, then the Supreme Court is the obvious battleground. (Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, according to “The Auditor,” gave every indication of not wanting to get involved in the Wallace flap–at least, not yet.)
Given the respective ideologies of Christie and Sweeney, and the behavior of the Court for a period lasting for several administrations, their war over the court should surprise no one. What should be obvious now is that this is a war involving more than two prospective election rivals. It is a war between those who have habitually bent the Constitution in the name of progressive ideology, and those who want to get the Constitution back into some semblance of its proper shape.
This table lists all seven Justices, the dates of their last Senate confirmations, and the dates that their current 7-year or tenured terms expire. Under the Constitution, any judge or Justice must serve seven years and then stand for reappointment–and in no case may a judge or Justice serve after (s)he has reached the age of 70.
John E. Wallace
May 20, 2003
May 20, 2010
Failed of reappointment
Robert A. Rivera-Soto
June 10, 2004
June 10, 2011
June 19, 2006
March 1, 2012
October 26, 2006
October 26, 2013
Stuart Rabner (Chief Justice)
June 29, 2007
June 29, 2014
Barry T. Albin
June 22, 2009
July 7, 2022
December 14, 2006
October 19, 2024
Merkt (as quoted by Mulshine) predicted that Christie would reappoint Wallace, perhaps seeing no obvious grounds not to. (Wallace has always been more joiner than author, as a quick review of his cases by this Examiner and other legal sources has shown.) Justices Albin and LaVecchia, being still young, would not retire until long after Christie’s two terms were up. Rabner is supposedly an old friend of the governor’s. The husband of Helen Hoens has a job in Christie’s administration. Justice Long will have to leave–she is nearing mandatory retirement–and Justice Rivera-Soto, given his earlier censure by the Court for conduct unbecoming a jurist and his lack of political allies in the Statehouse, will almost certainly be next after Wallace. However, with five of seven Justices remaining, Mulshine predicted that the majority would remain essentially unchanged in its left-of-center orientation. The best indicator: with two exceptions (Justice Hoens and Chief Justice Rabner, both appointed by Governor Jon S. Corzine), all the Justices were part of the seven-member working majority in Lewis v. Harris that so outraged then-Assemblyman Merkt that he moved to have them all impeached on account of their votes.
Christie’s non-reappointment of Wallace changes everything. By replacing Rivera-Soto and Long, Christie will likely increase his appointment total to three. Christie might give a pass to Hoens, on the strength of her spousal affiliation with his administration–or he might not. Rabner and Christie might once have been friends, but Rabner might have destroyed that friendship with his public upbraiding of Christie.
The public flap over Wallace, not entirely of the governor’s making, will likely ensure that everyone, of both competing ideologies, will be watching Christie from now on. Even more, the Elections of 2011 will be a referendum on Christie, Sweeney, and the Court.
This article is part of the New Jersey Supreme Court series.
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