Lambda Legal Tells Governor Christie Not to Play Politics with Our Courts

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March 17, 2014
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Protesters rally for fair courts in Trenton, NJ

As a gubernatorial candidate, Governor Christie often vowed he would reshape the “activist” New Jersey Supreme Court. In 2009, he stated: "I will remake the court and I will remake it in this one simple principle. If you [want to] legislate [then] run for the Legislature, don't put on a black robe and go to the Supreme Court.”

In May, 2010 he got his chance. That year, in an unprecedented move, Governor Christie refused to renominate Justice John Wallace to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Justice Wallace was a widely-respected jurist and the only African-American member of the Court.

Governor Christie’s decision marked the first time since the New Jersey Constitution was ratified that a New Jersey governor had not renominated a sitting justice.

Previous governors had certainly disagreed—often vehemently—with individual court decisions. However, they understood that preserving judicial independence was more important than personal politics. Even Republican Governor Tom Kean refused to deny reappointment to a sitting justice, because in his words: “If any judge in the state is worried about how he should make a decision that would affect his or her renomination, then the quality of justice is not going to be what you and I would want it to be in the state of New Jersey.”

This summer, justice is once again at risk! Here’s why: Last November, in a huge victory for same-sex couples and their families, the New Jersey Supreme Court refused to postpone the freedom to marry after Lambda Legal successfully won a lower court victory in Garden State Equality v Dow. The Court agreed that there was no public interest in depriving a group of New Jersey residents of their constitutional right to equal protection while the appeals process continued. As a result of that ruling, the freedom to marry came to New Jersey!

In his decision to drop the state’s appeal, Governor Christie issued a statement that he “strongly disagreed” with the Court “substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people.”

Antigay groups were quick to call on Governor Christie to make good on his promise to only appoint judges that wouldn’t “legislate from the bench.”

In June, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner – who authored the opinion in Lambda Legal’s case – will be up for renomination and many fear that politics will, once again, interfere with the process. But Governor Christie should not continue to weaken the New Jersey Supreme Court by his unprecedented refusals to renominate sitting justices.

Last week, in an effort to defend the independence of the New Jersey Supreme Court from any further intrusion from the political branches, Lambda Legal helped lead a rally for fair courts in Trenton, New Jersey. Lambda Legal was joined at the rally by organizations like the New Jersey NAACP, the Latino Action Network and New Jersey Citizen Action. All of our groups stood together to demand “justice -- free from politics.”

  

The fact is, whether it’s the freedom to marry, affordable housing, or equality in education, the people of New Jersey need to be able to trust that the courts will safeguard their constitutional rights. We do not want justices looking over their shoulder when they rule to make sure they aren’t deciding a case in a way that would be at odds with a governor’s political agenda. The public needs to have confidence that the New Jersey Supreme Court is deciding cases based on the law not based on fear of political retribution.

Learn more about Lambda Legal's Fair Courts Project here.

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