TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Gov. Chris Christie’s first nominee for the state Supreme Court will finally get a confirmation hearing Tuesday, more than a year after the Republican governor picked the corporate lawyer from his hometown to replace the high court’s only black justice.
Christie had been locked in a battle of wills with Senate President Stephen Sweeney over nominee Anne Patterson, 52, of Mendham. Sweeney blocked the nomination from moving forward, saying Christie was threatening the independence of the judiciary.
Christie criticized Sweeney, a Democrat, for trying to hijack the judge-nominating process. But earlier this month the two men said they had put aside their differences to reach a compromise.
Sweeney refused to schedule a hearing for Patterson after Christie declined to reappoint Justice John Wallace, a moderate and Sweeney friend who was two years from reaching the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70. An interim justice has been filling in.
New Jersey Supreme Court justices are nominated for initial seven-year terms. After that, they must be renominated to receive lifetime tenure, and every governor until Christie has done so in every instance since the state Constitution was enacted in 1947.
Sweeney and other Democrats accused the Republican governor of reaching too far into the business of the court by threatening to withhold reappointment of justices and judges with whom he disagrees.
“The independence of the judiciary is of paramount concern,” said Democrat Nick Scutari, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman.
Christie has vowed to nominate justices who will interpret the law, not legislate from the bench. He is determined to change a pro-active court that has forced the state to spend billions on education in poor districts, dictated that towns make room for low-income housing and verged on allowing gay couples to marry.
Christie, who has been critical of the activist court since he campaigned for governor in 2009, is now more vested than ever in seeing a change. That’s because the high court last week ordered the state to spend $500 million more on urban schools, dealing a blow to Christie’s plans to overhaul public education.
The governor had said he would consider disobeying the court’s order if it turned out to be unfavorable. After the ruling was made public he said he would comply. However, he made a point of saying he agreed with dissenting justices Helen Hoens and Roberto Rivera-Soto, who wrote separately that the court was overstepping its bounds.
“Justice Hoens and Justice Rivera-Soto said very clearly that they believe the court is now treading into an area that is outside of their area or authority and responsibility and its treading on the prerogatives of the legislative branch and the executive branch,” Christie said during a press conference days after the ruling. “And I agree.”
Scutari and others have pointed out that Hoens comes up for tenure next year and Rivera-Soto has announced plans to leave the bench when his term expires in September.
Scutari accused the governor of sending the message, “I want you to rule my way or I’m not going to appoint you.” He said he’s also concerned that the governor “is going to put these people through a litmus test on school funding, especially given the recent opinion.”
The reason Democrats agreed to hear Patterson’s nomination now is because Christie agreed to withdraw her name as Wallace’s successor.
She is now designated to replace Rivera-Soto instead. If confirmed by the full Senate, Patterson will take her seat on the court this fall.
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