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Christie, Sweeney Strike Deal to Name Democrat to Open Supreme Court Seat

But are there other compromises coming, especially over gas-tax hike, future of Atlantic City?

christie sweeney timpone
Credit: Governor's Office/ Mykwain Gainey
Gov. Chris Christie (front), Senate President Stephen Sweeney, and newly named state Supreme Court Justice Walter F. Timpone

Gov. Chris Christie has struck another big bipartisan deal with the Legislature’s top Democrat, this time resolving a longstanding political impasse over the makeup of New Jersey’s Supreme Court by backing off his insistence that the final vacancy on the bench had to be filled by a Republican.

The surprise announcement means the high court should soon have a full roster of justices for the first time since the early days of the governor’s now more than six-year tenure. And it likely ends Christie’s attempts to rework the Supreme Court, something he staked out as a top priority for his administration.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether the governor’s willingness to strike a bipartisan deal on the makeup of the high court signals a new appetite for compromise, especially when other major problems like transportation funding and Atlantic City’s impending fiscal collapse remain to be settled.

Christie, a second-term Republican, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) announced their deal jointly in the State House yesterday. The governor said he’s nominating veteran lawyer Walter Timpone, a Democrat, to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat that’s now occupied by a temporary justice. And Sweeney said Timpone, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in New Jersey who is now in private practice at Morristown-based McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, has his full support.

More importantly, Sweeney said Timpone will soon get a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

For Christie, the announcement represents a complete about-face from roughly a month ago, when he called a news conference to tell reporters that he was submitting the name of Superior Court Judge David Bauman, a Republican from Monmouth County, for a second time to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat. What’s more, Christie, just weeks removed from his failed bid for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination, insisted during the February 29 news conference that he was a ready to fight it out with Sweeney and other Democrats to ensure what would likely be his final pick for court was a Republican.

At stake was the long-term makeup of a seven-member court that already has three Republicans and an independent appointed by a previous GOP governor.

Sweeney weeks ago made it clear he wasn’t going to budge, saying he was prepared to block any Republican nominee through 2018, when Christie will reach the end of his term.

Facing that roadblock, Christie said yesterday he decided his prevailing goal was to resolve the court impasse because New Jersey citizens deserve a full complement of justices who have gone through the confirmation process spelled out in the state constitution. From there, he said, the task became a search for a Democrat he could support, knowing Sweeney was never going to advance a Republican nominee.

“I wanted to get to an agreement,” Christie told reporters yesterday. “We needed to find that common ground.”

“There’s no secret that I would have preferred to nominate a Republican,” he said. “But then you get down to what’s going to work.”

Christie said he’s known Timpone, a Cranford resident, for 15 years. He said he has full trust in Timpone’s judgment. The two men are both graduates of Seton Hall University Law School, and Christie is also a former U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, though they served at different times.

Timpone, who also attended the news conference yesterday, called his selection by Christie for the Supreme Court something “I could have never imagined ever coming.”

“This is a magical day for me,” Timpone said.

For Sweeney, Christie’s concession is a big victory in his longstanding battle to protect the court against Christie’s efforts to push it further to the right. That feud began in early 2010 when Christie refused to reappoint Justice John Wallace, a Democrat, for tenure.

Doing so broke with years of tradition followed by governors of both parties that dictated justices be reappointed regardless of party for lifetime tenure unless they demonstrated misconduct during their initial seven-year term. Christie’s decision also threatened another longstanding tradition, one that protects against partisan bias on the court by enduring that no governor can have more than four justices from his or her party at one time.

Getting Timpone on the high court would put a third Democrat on the bench to go with three Republicans and an independent justice who was seated by a prior Republican governor, Christie Whitman. And since he’s 65, Timpone won’t come up for reappointment before reaching the court’s mandatory age of retirement, which is 70.

“I’m very, very happy to be here today,” Sweeney said during yesterday’s news conference.

Christie, as a candidate in 2009, said one of his main goals as governor would be to make over a Supreme Court that he alleged had become too “activist” on issues like school funding and affordable housing. And he repeated it as a main goal in the wake of his controversial 2010 decision to not reappoint Wallace.

Asked whether his seating of three Republican justices, the selection of Timpone, and his 2014 reappointment of Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, who is also a Democrat, meets that bar, Christie said yesterday that judgment will now be left up to historians.

“We’ll have to wait and see the larger sweep of history,” he said.

Ben Dworkin, a Rider University political science professor and director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, said the Supreme Court issue was likely too complicated for Christie to generate the kind of support he would have needed from the public to gain the upper hand. Most simply don’t understand exactly how the Supreme Court works, including the tradition of “partisan balance.”

“Chris Christie is an extremely talented politician,” Dworkin said. “But this is one of those fights that never made sense to me.”

“I’m not sure what Christie got out of it,” Dworkin said.

And he said it remains to be seen whether Christie is now willing to work with Sweeney and other Democrats on other key unresolved issues. The Democrats want to renew the state Transportation Trust Fund with a gas-tax hike before it runs out of cash on June 30, but so far Christie has yet to reach a compromise with them. Atlantic City is also months away from running out of cash, but Christie has also held firm to his position that he’ll only accept a full state takeover that usurps collective-bargaining rights.

“We’ll see,” Dworkin said.

But the end of the Supreme Court impasse was praised yesterday by Republican lawmakers who’ve been forced to sit on the sidelines as Christie and Sweeney and other Democrats have battled it out over the court’s makeup since 2010.

“I look forward to reviewing the nomination of Walter Timpone in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and hope that his nomination represents an end to the judicial logjam that threatened our state courts,” said Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset).

The deal was also applauded by Miles S. Winder III, the president of the New Jersey State Bar Association.

“We applaud our elected leaders for putting aside politics to preserve the independence of our Judiciary, a co-equal branch of government and the crown jewel of our democracy,” he said.

And though Timpone’s appointment is expected to get a favorable reception in the Senate committee charged with vetting key nominations, lawmakers are also likely to probe two areas of controversy in his background, including a peripheral connection to the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal.

Timpone in early 2014 briefly represented Bridget Anne Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff for the governor who was fired after her involvement in an alleged plot to retaliate against the mayor of Fort Lee became public. She now faces federal corruption charges along with two other former Christie allies who worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

And Timpone could also face questions about a meeting he had in 2001 with former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli at a time when federal authorities were reportedly trying to recruit a client of Timpone’s to be a confidential informer as they looked closely at the senator.

Asked about that issue yesterday, Christie said he’s reviewed it personally and is not concerned at all.

A look at political contributions made by Timpone over the years also shows he’s donated to officials from both parties, including giving money to former Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey in 1997 and to Christie’s presidential campaign last summer.

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