A new dust-up has surfaced over Gov. Chris Christie and the state Supreme Court, with Christie saying the court’s aggressive history on school funding was foremost in his controversial decision not to reappoint Justice John Wallace.
In remarks before a community meeting last week and promoted on video, Christie also reiterated with some relish the prospect of naming a majority of the court before he's done.
“So this is a long-term process, but maybe not quite as long as people would think,” he said. “I’m going to have the ability to nominate four justices out of seven on the Supreme Court in my first term.”
The comments—and the video released overby the governor's office—further fueled what has been an ugly political fight over the state's highest court and Christie's unprecedented decision to replace one of its justice before retirement. New Jersey’s top Democrat on Friday called the remarks “scary” and “very dangerous,” and said they only hardened his own plans to block Christie's court nominee, Anne Patterson.
"This isn't even about the court cases, it's about him wanting to control the court," said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
The videotape captures a three-minute section of Christie’s town hall forum in Robbinsville, where he spoke on a range of issues surrounding his "Cap 2.5" plan to limit local spending and taxes. (The governor's office is prolific with video, and this was just one of three posted from Robbinsville.)
When the topic arose about the school funding formula that drives billions in state aid to local schools but this year seen deep cuts statewide, he linked New Jersey's current situation to the activism of the state's Supreme Court through its Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings.
Those rulings have steered billions to 31 urban districts, ranging from Vineland to Trenton to Jersey City and serving about a fifth of all New Jersey students. They were in part overturned in 2008, but the districts continue to receive the bulk of state aid.
“Now this has been going on for about 20 plus years now, and yet we don’t see much if any improvement in our urban schools,” Christie said in the videotape.
“So the Supreme Court’s theory that if you put more money in it, it’s going to just by magic get better has proven to be wrong,” Christie said.
That debate, of course, has by no means ended, as Christie's cuts in state aid next year are widely expected to be challenged before the same court.
"So if people wonder why I want to change the Supreme Court,” he continued, “it’s because I don’t have the flexibility to change the school funding formula if the same people at the Supreme Court who have been making these decisions stay there.”
“They’ve taken the power out of the hands of the legislature to make this judgment and out of the hands of the governor,” Christie said. "Well, that’s wrong. If judges want to legislate, they should run for the legislature."
In the videotape, those words received sustained applause from the Mercer County audience.
When contacted late Friday, Sweeney said he had seen the video and was struck by the governor’s remarks.
“It’s dangerous, very dangerous,” he said.
For two months, Sweeney has been publicly clashing with Christie over his nomination of Patterson to replace Wallace, calling the move an unprecedented intrusion and blocking Patterson from even having confirmation hearings. Christie's move has also drawn rare public protests from several current and former justices.
“The beauty of our court system is its independence and freedom from the heavy-handedness and ideology of any party,” Sweeney said. “Our Supreme Court is particularly known for its independence. But that is not what the governor wants. He wants a court he can control.”
Sweeney also contested the governor’s description of the court’s role in Abbott, citing the new formula that replaced it with the court’s backing in 2008. "And Wallace supported that," he said.
That decision ended the long-time distribution of extra aid to exclusively the Abbott districts and extended it across a far wider range of schools. Still, Abbott districts like Asbury Park and Newark, where they spend in the $20,000 range per student, have remained favorite targets for Christie and other Republicans.
Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, on Friday evening scoffed about some of the back and forth. “Scary and dangerous? Oh, please, that's a little melodramatic,” Drewniak wrote in an email.
And on one specific point, Drewniak said the governor did not say he would try to name a majority of the court.
“You cannot infer how many justices he will necessarily replace,” Drewniak wrote. “But he does have the opportunity. That’s a fact.”