Christie threatened to upend that tradition in May 2010 when he refused, for the first time since the state constitution was adopted in 1947, to reappoint a sitting justice, Democrat John Wallace. Conservatives thought they saw the governor bracing himself for a fight against a notoriously activist court, but as Senate Democrats retaliated by blocking his judicial appointees, he searched for a compromise. Christie emphasized in a news conference on Wednesday that he was bowing to the practical necessities of divided government. “The fact is that when you compromise you don’t get everything you want,” he said. “This should not be the subject of a newsflash.”
Palatucci says the decision was the best of the available options. “The other option was to do nothing and leave the Senate Democrats to do what they might want to do or continue to have temporary justices appointed from the appellate court,” he says. He praises the nomination of Republican Lee Solomon, calling him a “great pick,” and emphasizes that on some matters, like crime, Rabner, a former prosecutor, is “really conservative.”
The national GOP’s right flank is already looking to make Rabner’s reappointment the weight that sinks Christie in the upcoming presidential primary. They say that a chief executive does nothing more important than appoint judges and that Christie, one of the strongest chief executives in the country, simply refused to expend political capital on judicial appointments. Although groups like the Judicial Crisis Network and Americans for Prosperity were spoiling for a fight in New Jersey and eager to storm the state to help shape public opinion, it was a fight the governor didn’t want to have.
“Christie is trying to present himself as the great compromiser going into the presidential season,” says Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network. “What he is actually doing is showing Republicans that the priority he places on the judiciary is very low.” Severino, Bozell, and others are sounding the alarm: As president, they say, Christie will nominate judges more in the mold of Supreme Court justices David Souter and John Paul Stevens — who deeply disappointed conservatives – than that of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
“What he’s telling us is if he’s president then we can expect a Christie Court to look no different from an Obama Court,” Bozell said in the statement.
The governor brushed off the criticism, telling reporters that his critics are simply eager to get their names in the newspaper. “You know what is common with all of the critics and the ones who praise me on this one is they never have to make any decisions themselves,” Christie said at his Wednesday news conference. “All they are is on your speed dial to get a comment when you need a comment to fill whatever many lines you have in your particular story. That’s who they are. That’s what their life is all about.”
Palatucci emphasizes that while Christie hasn’t reached a decision about a 2016 presidential bid, he believes Republicans are “yearning for somebody who can stand up and take charge.”
This is not the first time Christie’s judicial appointments have prompted pushback from conservatives. He acceded to the demands of senate Democrats in 2012 when they insisted that he appoint two minority candidates to the court. One was an Asian American; the other, Bruce Harris, was an African American who was on record equating opposition to gay marriage to slavery. Both were ultimately rejected by the Democratic legislature. Even before that, however, the nominations elicited an outcry from conservatives. “Erase your strategy for staffing the Supreme Court,” the Newark Star-Ledger’s conservative columnist, Paul Mulshine, wrote to Christie in the wake of the nominations.