By John Celock
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and state Senate Democrats have reached a deal to end the stalemate on state Supreme Court vacancies.
Christie, accompanied by state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), announced Wednesday that he would nominate state Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to a tenured term on the court, and nominate Superior Court Judge Lee Solomon, a long time Christie ally, to an associate justice’s seat. Under the terms of the New Jersey Constitution, Rabner would be able to serve till his 70th birthday in 2030, while Solomon would serve a seven-year term and would be up for a tenured term in 2021.
“The fact of the matter is, if you want both parties to work together you have to give us both the time and the room to work together,” Christie said during a press conference. “The hallmark of my relationship with the Senate president is only the Senate president and I know what we talked about.”
Christie and state Senate Democrats have been locked in a battle over Supreme Court appointments since Christie first took office in 2010. Christie has long argued that the Court was too liberal, citing decisions related to affordable housing and education funding. Senate Democrats have argued that Christie wanted to upset a bipartisan balance on the seven-member court. Under state tradition, no party has held more than four seats on the court at one time.
One ignition in the court battle was Christie’s decision not to nominate then Justice John Wallace for a tenured term in 2010, which led Democrats to delay one Christie nominee’s confirmation for over a year and vote down two other nominees. In addition Christie saw two nominees withdraw after Democrats indicated that they would not hold confirmation votes on the nominees.
Wednesday’s appointments would still leave one Supreme Court seat vacant. A state Superior Court judge would continue to fill that seat on an acting basis.
Sweeney praised the deal he reached with Christie, noting the importance of preserving the independence of the court system. He noted other states have copied the court model that New Jersey has used since a new state constitution was adopted in 1947.
“This is a great day for the state of New Jersey. We have had many disagreements but you don’t stop talking and you don’t stop working until you get it done,” Sweeney said. “No one knows what we talk about but us. That’s how you get things done.”
Christie defended his judicial appointment record under questioning from reporters, noting that he has renominated all but two Superior Court judges that have come up for tenure since he took office. He noted that former Gov. Jon Corzine (D) did not renominate four judges. He took swipes at the state Bar Association rating system for judicial appointments, noting he has not submitted his nominees for a rating.
“I will make that decision based on my judgment, not on the opinion of outside groups or professors who have never had to make decisions of that level but have plenty of opinions,” Christie said.
Both nominees have long ties to Christie and the state’s legal system. Rabner was a long time prosecutor in the state’s U.S. attorney’s office, which Christie once headed. He was tapped by Corzine as the governor’s chief counsel in 2006 and then to serve as state attorney general later that year. He was appointed chief justice in 2007.
Solomon, a former state assemblyman and Camden County prosecutor, was deputy U.S. attorney under Christie for four years. He was originally appointed to the Superior Court by former Gov. Dick Codey (D) in 2006 but resigned in 2010 to become president of the Board of Public Utilities in Christie’s cabinet. Christie reappointed him to the judgeship in 2012 and Rabner picked him to serve as Camden County’s top judge last year.
Solomon’s wife, Diane, currently serves in Christie’s cabinet as BPU president, a post she was named to earlier this year. Diane Solomon took the BPU presidency after former BPU President Robert Hanna resigned to become a Superior Court judge, after his own Supreme Court nomination stalled.
Christie used the press conference to note that Washington should look to Trenton for advice on how to be bipartisan, a frequent line of the governor. Christie has had a close working relationship with Sweeney and others in the Democratic-controlled Legislature since taking office in 2010.
During the press conference Christie scuttled speculation by reporters that he planned not to reappoint Rabner due to his association with Corzine. The governor said he had planned to reappoint Rabner from the beginning and then chided reporters.
“This is the bipartisanship that pundits talk about all the time,” he said. “Revel in the joy of the moment.”