The Senate’s resistance to Gov. Christie’s efforts to re-make the court has proven worthwhile. The Star-Ledger reports, through three anonymous sources, that a deal has been reached between Senate President Sweeney and Governor Christie which will lead to Democrat Stuart Rabner being re-nominated as Chief Justice and Republican Lee Solomon nominated as a Justice. Christie probably decided that not re-nominating Chief Rabner would release a firestorm of protest that he does not need now.
There are currently five Justices – two Democrats, two Republicans and one Independent – and two temporarily appointed Judges filling vacancies. Under the above plan Solomon becomes the third Republican, and Judge Mary Catherine Cuff, currently a temporary judge, is the third Democrat. With the other temporary Judge stepping down, the court membership then would consist of 3 D’s, 3 R’s and 1 Ind.
It has been a long and distasteful series of events beginning in 2010 when Christie took unprecedented steps in denying tenure to the respected Democrat Justice John Wallace, and later in 2013 to Republican Justice Helen Hoens, who did not always vote in Christie’s favor. At various times the governor continued efforts without success to add enough Republicans to dominate the Supreme Court. In recent months there were hints that Christie would deny tenure to Chief Rabner.
Judge Lee Solomon was first appointed to the Superior Court in 2006 by Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey. In 2010 Gov. Christie appointed him to serve as President of the Board of Public Utilities. He resigned to return to the court, and in 2013 Chief Rabner appointed Solomon to head the Camden Vicinage, succeeding Assignment Judge Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina, who became a Supreme Court Justice.
For the time being Christie has lost the battle to dominate the court thanks to the Senate and an outpouring of concern from the legal community, progressives and the public. Granting tenure to Chief Rabner is particularly important as he has the power to shape legal precedents, assign decisions to the other justices, and run all the courthouses in New Jersey.
These appointments are not without risks, however, as how Justices will vote and when they might leave the court are unpredictable. The good news is that Rabner can serve until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 2030 and Democrat Albin, who was granted tenure, can serve until 2022. The status of the third Democrat temporary Judge Cuff is less clear. Nonetheless, were she to leave the Supreme Court Chief Rabner would be the one to name a replacement. The court will have two women but will still lack an African-American or Asian member. Nonetheless, if matters proceed as now anticipated the court’s political balance will be as good as can be expected with a Republican Governor and a Democratic Legislature.