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Gov. Chris Christie said Wednesday he will reappoint the New Jersey Supreme Court justice who led the Republican governor to abandon his fight over a court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in the Garden State.
At a press conference, Christie announced he would renominate New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to the state’s high court as part of a compromise reached with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D).
Last October, Rabner delivered the court’s unanimous opinion denying a request by the Christie administration to put on hold a ruling by a lower court permitting same-sex marriage in the state while the case was appealed. Although the decision was not a final ruling in the case, which was supposed to go before the high court several months later, the Christie administration looked to the 7-0 decision allowing same-sex marriages to begin Oct. 21 as a preview of how the New Jersey Supreme Court would rule when the justices reached the merits of the case.
“I have expressed very clearly my disagreements with this court and I have expressed very clearly, at times, disagreements that I’ve had with individual opinions of the court,” Christie said, adding he will continue to do so as is his right under the First Amendment and obligation as governor to explain the impact of the court on public policy.
“Over the last seven years that I’ve watched him be the chief justice, my respect for him has never been diminished,” Christie said of Rabner. “I’ve disagreed with him and I’ve expressed that publicly, but never have I thought he hasn’t run the courts in a fair, effective and efficient manner. Never have I thought he’s brought any bias or partisanship to the execution of his duties as chief justice. And never have I thought he wasn’t eminently qualified to be the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.”
Christie’s reappointment comes after speculation that Rabner could face political retribution based on hostility Christie has shown toward the court in the past. Christie declined to reappoint Justice John Wallace, a Democrat and the court’s only African-American justice, in 2010. The move made Christie the first New Jersey governor since the ratification of the New Jersey Constitution in 1947 to not reappoint a sitting Supreme Court justice. Two years later, in 2012, Christie declined to reappoint Justice Helen Hoens, a Republican, as well. Christie has expressed a desire to reshape what he has labeled a “liberal activist court.”
Earlier this month, Lambda Legal, which filed the case that ushered in same-sex marriage in the Garden State, launched a petition along with several New Jersey-based organizations urging Christie “not to play politics with the New Jersey Supreme Court.” The petition gathered 7,000 signatures. A resolution released in February by the New Jersey State Bar Association stated it would be an “unprecedented intrusion of politics into the third co-equal branch” for Christie not to reappoint Rabner.
During his remarks Wednesday, Christie said of all the factors he considered when deciding whether to renominate Rabner, the view of the bar association was not one of them.
“While there’s been much speculation about all this from people who don’t know anything about what I’m really thinking, I’m really pleased to be here today and to be placing his name and nomination for tenure as chief justice of the court,” Christie said of Rabner.
“I’ve never made a public comment to date about whether or not I’d reappoint the chief justice. All of you assume based upon other language that I use about my displeasure with the court that that’s where it was leading to. But once again, you assume and you’re wrong,” Christie told reporters. “In the end, I made this decision myself. It’s my decision.”
Although Rabner’s reappointment was welcomed by advocates, Eric Lesh, Fair Courts Project Manager for Lambda Legal, said concerns remain about the “the politicization of the judicial confirmation and retention process.”
“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,” Lesh said in a statement. “As the victory for marriage equality in New Jersey shows, we often have to go to court to fight for our rights. When we do, we absolutely have to trust that the process was fair – win or lose. Judges do not serve the governor – they serve the people and protect the very structure of our democracy.”
If reconfirmed, the 53-year-old Rabner, who was first nominated by Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and confirmed in June 2007, could serve until the mandatory retirement age of 70, according to the Associated Press.