A bitter partisan feud more than 150 years ago gave birth to the tradition of bipartisan balance on the New Jersey Supreme Court.
The two-year, bitter partisan feud between Governor Christie and Senate Democrats over the Supreme Court will enter a new stage when the governor offers two new nominees — possibly as early as this week. Christie’s next move could put that bipartisan tradition on trial. Or maybe redefine it.
In the eyes of lawmakers and governors, the tradition is an important hedge against partisan excess. And in the eyes of the public, a bipartisan Supreme Court is far more credible than one handed down by a court “chosen exclusively or preponderantly from one political party,” as Arthur T. Vanderbilt, the first chief justice of the modern court, wrote.
The stakes are high. The court rules on public school funding, environmental regulations, affordable housing and scores of other issues that affect the day-to-day lives of New Jersey residents.
Governors of both major parties have since stuck by the unwritten rule by “common consent” since the 1890s, making sure that the party of the sitting governor should hold a slight, 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court when possible.
The tradition is at the root of the current standoff between Christie and the Senate Democrats, led by Senate President Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester.
It also is why the Democrats say they rejected Christie’s two nominees to the court this year, Bruce K. Harris, a Republican lawyer from Chatham, and Phillip Kwon, the state’s first assistant attorney general, an independent from Closter. Christie argued that the nominations complied with the spirit of the bipartisan tradition, yielding a balance of three Republicans, two Democrats, and two independents.
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