Washington, D.C. — Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) has taken unprecedented action to pack the New Jersey Supreme Court with justices who will rule the way he wants, according to a new report released today by the Center for American Progress. As the George Washington Bridge scandal continues to unfold, the report tracks another story about Gov. Christie going to political extremes to get what he wants, even when its meant hurting his constituents along the way.
“In his unprecedented effort to control the New Jersey Supreme Court, Christie is violating the spirit—if not the letter—of the state constitution,” said Billy Corriher, co-author of the report and Associate Director of Research for Legal Progress. “He seeks to curtail the court’s independence and enlarge his own authority over the nonpolitical branch of government—all in the name of spending less money on affordable housing and the education of poor kids.”
In “Chris Christie’s War on Judicial Independence,” authors Billy Corriher and Alex Brown unpack the implications of the fact that Gov. Christie is the only New Jersey governor since the ratification of the state constitution who refused to nominate a sitting state supreme court justice for tenure. According to the report, Christie’s attempts to make the court more conservative run afoul of traditions that have ensured the high court’s independence from the political branches of government since the ratification of the state constitution. Until now, the political branches renominated every sitting justice for tenure, regardless of whether they agreed with the justice’s rulings, and they maintained a partisan balance in which neither Republicans nor Democrats had more than a 4–3 majority on the court. The tradition of partisan balance even predated the state’s 1947 constitution.
Gov. Christie’s actions could lead to a New Jersey Supreme Court that will rule in his favor and against middle-class families and poor school districts. In a series of cases decided between 1973 and 1975, the New Jersey Supreme Court held the state government accountable to the constitutional requirement that the state provide the poorest children with a sufficient education. After Gov. Christie’s 2011 budget slashed more than a billion dollars in aid for poor students, the court ruled that Christie’s budget violated the New Jersey Constitution, which requires the state to provide a “thorough and efficient” education for all students.
In response to the court’s ruling in favor of children in poor school districts, Gov. Christie has promised to “reshape” the “activist” court into one that will not force the state to spend money on those districts.
Students in New Jersey’s urban schools were historically neglected by state lawmakers, but the state supreme court has intervened in recent decades and ordered the state to spend more money on districts with less property tax revenue. Christie’s effort to influence the court by denying a sitting supreme court justice tenure would not only leave three out of seven seats on the court vacant, leading to a potential state constitutional crisis, but also leave middle-class and poor families unprotected.
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