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Christie's Quid Pro Quo: Will It Change Direction of Top Court?

Lustberg said Rabner has done a "superb" job and his renomination "says a lot about the continued independence of the judiciary." He called Solomon "a man of integrity" and said he thinks the former state Assemblyman has what it takes to be "a fine jurist."

Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said giving Rabner tenure will maintain balance on the court.

“The renomination of Chief Justice Rabner is an important victory that will help protect the independence and integrity of the state’s highest court and preserve its partisan balance,” she said. “We fought for this agreement because we believed we had to prevent the governor from imposing his ideological and political will on a Court long respected for its brave, legally sound decisions.”

Christie, who has criticized the court as being too liberal and activist, said he has made his mark on it.

“You will see three new justices on the court nominated by me and confirmed by the Senate, I think that’s a significant change,” he said.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein applauded the compromise to resolve what he called a "crisis" but said it does not negate what he sees as a need for the state to amend the constitution to give sitting justices automatic tenure following an initial seven-year term unless they are deemed unfit for service.

"There is a disconnect between what the constitution said and what the framers meant," said Stein, who first proposed the amendment that received the support of the NJSBA, 20 of the 21 county bar associations, a number of specialty bars and law school alumni groups. "I think there is a significant need for an amendment that makes crystal clear the intent of the framers that justices and judges should be renominated unless they demonstrate unfitness."

He noted that Christie made clear at his press conference that he alone has the power over nominations.

"The governor can choose to not renominate a judge for any reason at all; that's not healthy," Stein said. "The Legislature ought to take a hard look at this and recognize there is a problem . . . This is a great time to do it, now that it's right on the table in front of everyone."

Worried About the Future

Like Stein, Eric Lesh, fair courts project manager for Lambda Legal, which supports equal rights for gays and lesbians, was pleased with Rabner’s renomination but worried about the future for other judges in New Jersey.

”While it is good Gov. Christie has not taken the unprecedented step to reject the renomination of the Chief Justice, we remain concerned about the politicization of the judicial confirmation and retention process,” said Lesh. “Whether it's the freedom to marry, affordable housing, or equality in education, the people of New Jersey need to trust that the courts will safeguard their constitutional rights. We do not want judges looking over their shoulders to make sure they aren't deciding a case in a way that is at odds with a governor's political agenda."

Lifetime tenure would erase that fear and Stein noted Christie said he would not oppose giving state judges lifetime tenure.

"If the people want lifetime tenure like the federal system, I am not opposed to that," Christie said. "I think that's worked in the main in the federal model and I think it could work here."

But that would likely mean a longer confirmation process with greater scrutiny, since it would be the only chance legislators would get to decide whether to allow someone a lifetime of service on the bench.

In announcing his renomination of Rabner, Christie said he considers Rabner, with whom he worked at the U.S. Attorney's Office, a friend and said that while he has disagreed with some of his rulings, "my respect for him has never been diminished."

Yet he drew Christie’s ire last July when he wrote the court’s opinion overturning the governor’s plan to abolish the state Council on Affordable Housing. At the time, Christie said, “The Chief Justice's activist opinion arrogantly bolsters another of the failures he and his colleagues have foisted on New Jersey taxpayers. This only steels my determination to continue to fight to bring common sense back to New Jersey's judiciary.”

Rabner also led the unanimous court that refused to stop a lower court ruling that ordered same-sex marriages go forward in the state. Christie had vetoed a bill that would have allowed gay marriage.

Rabner said he was grateful for the opportunity to continue to serve the public by returning to the court "I care so deeply about." He is a former state attorney general and served as chief counsel to Gov. Jon Corzine before Corzine nominated him to the court.

Solomon is the current Assignment Judge in Camden County. He has a close relationship with the governor, having been appointed by him first to head the state Board of Public Utilities -- the governor has since given that job to Solomon’s wife -- and then to the Superior Court, where he had been a judge prior to Christie’s naming him to head the BPU. He has also served as a deputy U.S. Attorney and Camden County prosecutor, as well as five years in the Assembly. After Christie announced his nomination, Solomon said he would “work very, very hard” as a justice and looked forward to the opportunity to serve.

“Judge Solomon will bring to the Court unquestioned qualifications, a depth of experience in public service, and knowledge in policy matters touching on issues across the state,” Christie said in announcing his nomination. ”I have known Lee for many years as a person of integrity who is universally well respected for his independence and temperament throughout his long history of serving the people of our state.”

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