The New Jersey State Bar Association has announced creation of a task force on judicial independence. It will be chaired by two distinguished retired judges - former Appellate Division Presiding Judge Dorothea Wefing, and Hudson County Assignment Judge Maurice Gallipolli. The Bar is facing an uphill battle to restore the sixty year tradition that politics ended with confirmation for the first seven year term, which was routinely followed by nomination and confirmation for tenure ending at the mandatory retirement age of seventy. Governor Christie ended that tradition when he dismissed moderate Democrat John Wallace a long serving Appellate Division judge at the end of his seven year term on the Supreme Court - only eighteen months before he turned seventy.
Governor Chris Christie delivered another shock to New Jersey's legal community when he dismissed another long serving appellate judge Associate Justice Helen Hoens - a conservative with impeccable Republican credentials - and proposed replacing her with a Cuban American trial judge with neither appellate experience nor a record of distinction as a legal thinker. The Democratic President of the State Senate Stephen Sweeney promptly announced he would soon hold hearings on the nomination of Judge Faustino Fernandez. Until then the Democratic Senate leaders had obstructed and resisted Christie's efforts to remake the state's Supreme Court in his image.
The Governor has also been characteristically vociferous in denouncing judges who defied his preferences, such as overturning his executive order to abolish the legislatively mandated Council on Affordable Housing, adhering to the Supreme Court's mandate of parity in urban-suburban school spending , and rejecting he statute decreasing judges' take-home pay by increasing deductions for pension and health insurance. The last was met by a constitutional amendment proposed by the Democratic legislative leadership.
It is against this background that the Bar Association will labor to restore the now golden era in which New Jersey judges worked free of political interference, acting boldly, and earning a national reputation for innovation. There remain two vacancies on the Supreme Court and the moderate Democrat Chief Justice Stuart Rabner - who has angered Christie - ends his probationary seven year term next June. Since 1947 no Chief Justice has been denied nomination and confirmation for tenure. Christie is expected to break that rule and refuse to nominate Rabner for tenure.