New Jersey Senate Does Governor Christie a Favor

by Gary Marx

According to the AP, the New Jersey Senate “is scheduled to vote Thursday on a resolution saying Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto should resign [from the New Jersey Supreme Court] if the Assembly doesn’t move to impeach him.”

The vote is supposed to be a rebuke of Governor Christie, who has not played along with Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s ongoing attempt to control the state’s supreme court. But constitutional conservatives weren’t too thrilled with Rivera-Soto’s judicial record anyway, so I’m not sure this is such a smart move. If Rivera-Soto resigns or is impeached it would actually end up benefiting Governor Christie by giving him another appointment and hastening the fulfillment of his campaign promise to remake the court. Sweeney should probably receive a thank you note from Christie’s office.

Sweeney’s poor political judgment should not obscure the fact that he is a bully who would do almost anything to control the levers of power in Trenton. Why is he so concerned about the New Jersey Supreme Court? Because the court will soon decide whether the governor’s budget provided enough funding for education, and at some point they will weigh in on the state’s redistricting maps.

This is not an isolated incident. It is just another inflection point in the ongoing constitutional crisis involving the supreme court — and the responsibility for creating that crisis falls squarely on Sweeney’s shoulders. Nearly nine months ago, Governor Christie nominated Anne Patterson to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Since then, Senate president Stephen Sweeney has refused to hold hearings on Patterson’s nomination. According to Sweeney: “This seat will stay open.”

What explains his obstruction? Governor Christie exercised his constitutional prerogative to replace Sweeney’s friend, Justice John Wallace, a liberal judicial activist whose constitutional term was up.

Why is Sweeney now so irritated with Justice Rivera-Soto? When Chief Justice Stuart Rabner decided to unilaterally (and illegally) fill the Wallace vacancy with his own appointment, Rivera-Soto announced that he would abstain from voting in any case involving Rabner’s appointee on the basis that the court was illegally constituted.

If New Jersey’s senators believe resignation or impeachment is the appropriate remedy for dealing with an official who refuses to perform his official duties, then Sweeney should be next.

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