Governor Chris Christie took office five years ago with a vow to rein in the courts which had long been an object of conservative disdain. Chief among the grievances were that in the twenty five years between capital punishment's legislative restoration and repeal none of the sixty persons sentenced to death had been executed; the state Supreme Court's open and affordable housing principles of Mt. Laurel had been the source of friction; and large sums were spent by the state in hopes of achieving parity of urban-suburban public school spending and educational results mandated via the Abbott v. Burke rulings.
Shortly thereafter the Governor took the unprecedented step of denying tenure to a long-sitting Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. A protracted battle with the Democrat-controlled legislature followed. Christie has gotten only two nominees onto the court which operates now with temporary assignments of two senior Appellate Division judges.
A third vacancy is imminent - that of Christie's former deputy at the U.S. Attorney's office - Democrat and Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. His seven year term expires in June. Ralph Lamparello, the State Bar Association's President has spoken out on the issue in an op-ed published in Sunday's Star Ledger. It follows. - GWC
Christie should keep Rabner as Supreme Court chief justice: Opinion
Last month, in his State of the State address, Gov. Chris Christie apologized to the people of New Jersey for actions taken regarding lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.
The governor acknowledged that as the leader of the state, he is responsible for its achievements and its missteps. He uttered the phrase so many before him have said: “Mistakes were clearly made.”
While the governor was referring to the Bridgegate controversy, parallels can be drawn to his actions toward the judicial branch — our third, separate and co-equal branch of government.
The New Jersey State Bar Association believes a mistake was clearly made when the governor took the unprecedented action to not reappoint Justice John Wallace Jr. Another mistake was clearly made when he chose to personally vilify Justice Barry Albin. And, of course, a mistake was clearly made when he refused to nominate Justice Helen Hoens for reappointment last fall.
Mistakes are part of the human experience. We can and do make them every day in the course of our personal and professional lives. It is such a part of the fabric of our existence that magnets and bumper stickers abound bearing commentator Esther Dyson’s entreaty to “always make new mistakes.”
The reverberations of these past mistakes continue to be felt throughout the judiciary. This spring, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner will complete his initial term of seven years as head of the state’s judicial branch, making him eligible for tenure. Through his opinions and his administration of the courts, he has demonstrated the qualities every chief justice should have. In fact, he epitomizes the very qualifications the governor recently said he looks for in a justice.
“What you’re looking for is someone who understands the exalted nature of the work, but does not believe it makes them personally exalted,” the governor said last month at the ceremonial swearing-in of Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina.
Those words and sentiments describe our chief justice’s tenure and demeanor precisely.
Even more, in 2007, when his nomination was being held up by senatorial courtesy, the governor, as U.S. attorney, said he couldn’t stand by while no one in Trenton spoke up for his former colleague.
At a speech in West Windsor, he stated, “When I read that no one was standing up for him, I turned to my wife and said, ‘I’m doing it today.’ Because good and decent people need to have someone out there who is willing to tell the truth, and not first make a political calculation about whether this is a convenient moment to tell the truth. It’s time for people who believe in people like Stu Rabner to stand up and say enough is enough.”
The New Jersey State Bar Association believes strongly that judges, and the chief justice in particular, deserve tenure — save some demonstration that they lack the knowledge or decorum to serve. We are here “to stand up and say enough is enough.”
It would be an unprecedented intrusion of politics into the judicial branch to decline the reappointment of the sitting chief justice, the person entrusted to lead this branch of government. In fact, no chief justice has been denied tenure under our current constitution. It would be a clear mistake in the case of this chief, a “good and decent” person, who has so admirably led our judiciary for the past seven years.
This is more than just about him rightfully receiving tenure. This is about recognizing and honoring the integrity of the judiciary. To decline the chief justice’s reappointment would strike a body blow to the concept of an independent judiciary, one where the residents of this state seek to resolve their differences in a fair and equitable manner. It would be a clear and blatant attempt to co-opt the judiciary by another branch that is supposed to be its equal, not its superior. Further, it would diminish the democracy envisioned by the Founding Fathers of this country and the framers of the 1947 New Jersey Constitution.
Besides talking about mistakes, the governor further promised in his State of the State message to “do better.” He should apply that mantra not just to governing the state’s highways and bridges, but also to the state’s judiciary.
Ralph J. Lamparello is president of the New Jersey State Bar Association and managing partner of Chasan Leyner & Lamparello PC in Secaucus.