Bench Memos

A Swing and A Miss, Chris Christie Edition

Last week, Brigid Harrison published an op-ed taking issue with the video ad released by my organization, the Judicial Crisis Network, tagging New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s horrific record on judicial appointments.

One of several data points that we identified in the video was Christie’s decision to re-appoint Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, a liberal judicial activist originally appointed by Jon Corzine. According to Harrison, we’re being unfair: Christie simply didn’t have any choice in the matter, because you just can’t comprehend how hard it is for Christie to deal with his state senate.  

Of course the state senate has made Christie’s life more difficult. But that’s less than half the story. The rest is that Christie devoted little attention, and even less political capital, to serious judicial reform. Let’s review.

First, Christie could have nominated better candidates. He could have picked nominees with sterling credentials, obvious intelligence, and a record of adherence to the rule of law and a conservative judicial philosophy. Instead, Christie picked a series of cronies and hacks for the supreme court who had little purpose other than burnishing Christie’s image as a politically correct pragmatist.

‐ Nominee Philip Kwon was more of a blank slate; we have no reason whatsoever to think that he adhered to Christie’s stated judicial philosophy. Was he picked because he and Christie were buddies at the U.S. Attorney’s Office? Who knows?

We haven’t even begun to discuss Christie’s lower-court appointees. Can any of them be described as highly qualified nominees with a record of adherence to the rule of law and traditional legal principles? Maybe so; maybe not. We have no idea, and Christie hasn’t done anything to promote the impression that he has taken these positions seriously.

Second, Christie could have spent some of the time he spent recording rants on YouTube and PRstunt videos making the case for judicial reform. Instead, he gave these issues the back of the hand. When asked about the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, for instance, he flippantly asked “Who knows?” Sure, talking about judicial reform won’t get as many clicks or social media hits as a loud YouTube video, but it might actually lead to the very change that the state so desperately needs.

Today, just as when Christie took office, the biggest roadblock between him and his agenda is the New Jersey Supreme Court. Three years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued its latest edict in micromanaging the state’s education budget. Just last year the court struck down regulations issued by the Council On Affordable Housing that attempted to relieve some of the crushing fiscal burden on local governments created by the court’s Mount Laurel decisions. And the court has been slowly rewriting criminal procedure, relying on social science instead of legislation to make it harder for law enforcement to figure out the rules ahead of time, ultimately making it harder to identify criminals. Some change . . .

Governor Christie has carefully cultivated an image as a stern-hearted politician who crushes anyone or anything in his way. But if Christie really wanted to play Governor Hardball, maybe he should have done it for the sake of achieving judicial reform, instead of political revenge.

Carrie Severino — Carrie Severino is chief counsel and policy director to the Judicial Crisis Network.

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