By John Celock
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) grew testy with questions about his endorsement of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump during a Monday press conference to announce a new state Supreme Court justice.
Christie refused to answer any “off-topic questions” during his announcement of state Superior Court Judge Robert Bauman for a vacancy on the state Supreme Court. Christie reiterated several times that he would not take any questions not related to Bauman or the court when pressed. The announcement came as he tried to use the current partisan bickering over the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court in an attempt to force a confirmation hearing in the Democratic-controlled state Senate for Bauman.
“This seat has been held open for six years,” Christie said. “It is no longer acceptable.”
Christie was citing his on-going feud with Senate Democrats over high court seats, which has seen the Senate vote down two nominees and not hold votes on another two, including Bauman. Bauman was originally nominated for the Supreme Court in 2012 but was not confirmed by the Senate then. Christie noted though that last year, the Senate unanimously confirmed Bauman for a second term on the Superior Court, a term which will last through his 70th birthday.
The Supreme Court debate has been mired in partisan politics in New Jersey and the tradition in the Garden State since the current state constitution was enacted in 1947 that no more than four of the seven justices be in one party. Christie says that Bauman’s appointment would bring the court to four Republicans, two Democrats and one independent.
Senate Democrats counter Christie that Bauman would bring the court to five Republicans, saying that the independent, Justice Jaynee LaVecchia is a Republican based on her pre-court career. LaVecchia, originally appointed to the court in 2000 by then Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R), had served in Whitman’s administration as banking and insurance commissioner and state law director and was an attorney for former Gov. Tom Kean (R) in the 1980s. LaVecchia’s late husband, Michael Cole, was a top aide to Kean. LaVecchia was appointed to her second term on the court in 2007 by then Gov. Jon Corzine (D) and was a Kean appointee to serve as the state’s chief administrative law judge.
“I trust how vocal Democrats have been about Washington D.C. and the problems there, they will allow New Jersey to set the example,” Christie said, referencing the debate over Scalia.
Christie said that he believed Bauman, who would be the state’s first Asian-American Supreme Court justice, was qualified but noted that he considered several other candidates before returning to Bauman. Since Bauman’s original nomination died, two other Christie Supreme Court nominees, Justices Faustino Fernandez-Vina and Lee Solomon, were confirmed by the Senate. Fernandez-Vina was a longtime state judge, while Solomon, a former state legislator and state judge, had previously served in Christie’s cabinet and was Christie’s deputy in the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Since October 2012, state Superior Court Appellate Division Judge Mary Catherine Cuff has served as an acting justice by appointment of Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, a fact that Christie criticized Monday. Cuff, who was appointed to her judgeship by Kean and Whitman, is slated for mandatory retirement when she turns 70 in August 2017.
“Chief justices should not be empowered to do that,” Christie said. “Those justices should be picked by those elected by the people.”
Rabner, who was appointed by Corzine, worked under Christie in the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Christie refused on several occasions to take questions related to his endorsement of Trump, a move that shocked many on Friday.
Christie also shot back at questions that he rushed through Bauman’s nomination to counter the fallout from the Trump endorsement. He said that he has been considering nominees for several months. He also said that he did not come back from a Trump rally in Tennessee on Saturday to deal with the Supreme Court. At the rally, Trump was overheard telling Christie that he could “go home” and directed the governor to a waiting plane. Christie said he could have walked back from Tennessee by Monday.
The closest Christie came to an off topic question was being asked about his decision earlier on Monday to appoint First Assistant Attorney General Robert Lougby as the new acting attorney general when Acting Attorney General John Hoffman steps down next month for a post at Rutgers University. Christie said he did not want to rush a nomination for a new attorney general.
New Jersey has been without a permanent attorney general since June 2013 when Christie appointed Jeffrey Chiesa to the U.S. Senate. Christie’s December 2013 nomination of his then chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd died following the Bridgegate investigation. Dow, who testified before the legislative Bridgegate Committee, was not implicated in the decision to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge, which implicated one of his deputies. Dow has since left the Christie Administration for the private sector. Hoffman has been acting attorney general since Chiesa was tapped for the four-month Senate term.
Bauman spoke briefly at the press conference, saying that he planned to “live up to this honor” if confirmed. Christie on several occasions reiterated Bauman’s background including graduating from Columbia University.
Christie several times took shots at the Senate to confirm Bauman.
“I hope they stop this six year roadblock on the seat, that is unprecedented,” he said.