Not surprisingly, state Supreme Court nominee Anne Patterson yesterday steered clear of the specifics of last week’s Abbott v. Burke ruling, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on legislators’ parts -- and they did elicit a few clues.
The setting was Patterson’s long-awaited Senate confirmation hearing, where New Jersey education in general and the Abbott case in particular were frequent topics of discussion.
After all, the Abbott case and the court’s long record of ordering more school funding has been Gov. Chris Christie’s Exhibit A in trying to remake the court, starting with Patterson’s nomination.
But while she spoke to some of the issues underlying the court’s 21st Abbott decision, Patterson repeatedly said she would not discuss this or any other case before the court -- especially one she may hear herself.
"I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to talk about Abbott v. Burke issues," she said at one point.
"It is a case not leaving the court, and I’m all but certain there will be an Abbott XXII," Patterson continued, with few arguing otherwise.
In the end, the Senate Judiciary committee -- Democrats and Republicans -- heaped praised on the nominee, voting 11-1 to confirm and virtually assuring her approval by the full Senate. Clearly, the confirmation hearing gave the legislators their first public exchange with Patterson, and one especially well-timed with last week’s decision.
Trying a different tack, state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) asked Patterson what she thought of public education and whether she was a product of public schools herself.
"I am very supportive of public schools, and the attention to public education is extremely important," Patterson responded, adding that she attended Catholic schools.
On more substantive issues, Patterson said she had read all 21 Abbott decisions, as well as the Robinson v. Cahill case that preceded it. And while not in response to a direct question about Abbott, she said judicial precedence did matter.
"It is an important principle for any judge," she said. "It is a recognized principle and although there are obviously changes over time and it is not absolute. . . it gives judges guidance and citizens guidance in terms of the law."
Still, Patterson also spoke several times about the importance of deferring to the elected branches of government when it came to policy. That was a central point in the Supreme Court's 3-2 decision last week, with the majority ordering the governor and legislature to restore an estimated $500 million in aid to the state’s high-poverty districts. The minority said the court should have deferred to the legislature under the state’s Appropriations Act.
Patterson said in her opening statement that the court "must never forget that the legislative and executive branches elected by the people of New Jersey are uniquely charged with the power and responsibility to set policy for our state."
At a later point, Patterson said: "On matters of policy, deference to the legislature is extremely important."
Some of the longest questioning came from state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), who delved into technicalities of the Abbott decision and its dissents. One, from Associate Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto, argued that the short-handed court should not be able to decide with just three judges in the majority.
In her questioning, Gill said there was talk that the Christie administration may bring a motion for reconsideration before the court, based on that argument. It would have to happen soon, with any such motion needing to be filed within 10 days of the decision, although that can be extended for "good cause."
"I'm not asking if you agree with the outcome of the case, but asking what is your opinion on that particular position," Gill said, alluding to Rivera-Soto’s dissent.
But in keeping with the tone of much of the hearing, Patterson once again deferred. "My answer is I don’t know," she said.