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Former Gov. Chris Christie. Photo by Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe.

N.J. Supreme Court: The Christie Court

By David Wildstein, June 07 2020 10:12 pm

The ninth governor of New Jersey to serve under the 1947 State Constitution was Republican Chris Christie, who became the first in history to refuse the reappointment of a sitting justice – he did it twice – and the first to see a Supreme Court nomination be rejected by the State Senate – that happened four times.

Christie’s first top court pick came four months in to his first year as governor when he declined to reappoint Associate Justice John E. Wallace, Jr., the only black on the court.

Instead, he picked Anne Patterson, a 52-year-old Republican lawyer from Morris County. While Patterson was white, the move would create a court that had more women than men – the fifth state in the nation to achieve that.

Christie, already eyeing a larger political arena, viewed the court as too liberal and wanted to change its ideology.

Had Christie renominated Wallace, the seat would have come up again in March 2012 when the Associate Justice reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Senate President Steve Sweeney and other Democrat cried foul, claiming that Christie was defying a tradition: governors didn’t dump justices because they disagreed with their decisions.

As a result, Sweeney flexed the power of the Senate and said he would not hold confirmation hearings to the seat until after the date Wallace would have been aged out.

At the start of 2011, Associate Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto announce that he would not seek reappointment to the bench when his initial seven-year term expired on August 31.

Rivera-Soto, the first Hispanic to serve on the state’s highest court, got in trouble in 2007 when the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct filed an ethics complaint alleging that he abused his post when contacting local officials about an incident involving a family member at a local school.  Rivera-Soto had threatened school officials that he would file a criminal complaint against them if they failed to fact and later called the Haddonfield police chief to push for a criminal complaint against a student at the school.

He also called the judge hearing the complaint, and the county prosecutor.

Rivera was later censured by the court for his actions.

Christie later pulled the nomination of Patterson for Wallace’s seat and renominated her for the one Soto was vacating.  Sweeney then allowed the Senate to consider and confirm Patterson, sixteen months after her original appointment.   She took her seat on September 1, 2011.

Another seat came up in March 2012 when Associate Justice Virginia Long turned 70.

With two vacancies, Christie announce the nomination of Brue Harris and Phil Kwon to replace Wallace and Long.

Harris, the Republican mayor of Chatham Borough, was black and would have become the state’s first openly gay justice.  Kwon, who had worked for Christie as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and then as an Assistant Attorney General, would have become the first Asian American on the Supreme Court.

The Sente Judiciary Committee, by a 7-6 vote, rejected Kwon’s nomination following questions over legal and financial issues involving a family business in New York.

Democrats accused Christie of changing the partisan balance of the court, suggesting that Kwon had been a Republican before registering as an independent.  Sweeney was angered by the lack of South Jersey nominees.

On May 31, the Judiciary panel rejected Harris, by a vote of 7-6, saying he lacked courtroom experience.

Christie suggested that the rejections were retaliatory after he pushed pension and benefit reform through the legislature.

In December 2012, Christie announced the nominations of Superior Court Judge David Bauman and Board of Public Utilities President Robert Hanna to replace Wallace and Long.

Bauman, a Republican, was born in Japan and Christie said is nomination represented diversity on the court.  Hanna, an unaffiliated voter, worked for Christie as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.

Sweeney refused to advance Bauman and Hanna through the Senate confirmation process.

Associate Justice Helen Hoens, a Republican named by Corine, was up for reappointment for a tenured seat in 2013 after completing her seven-year term on the Supreme Court.

Hoens appeared to be campaigning to save her job when some of her votes on the court moved a little to the right, but Christie decided not to renominate her.

Christie claimed her wanted to prevent Hoens from being embarrassed by the Senate rejecting a sitting justice, but in reality he didn’t want her back.

Something that made that even more uncomfortable: Hoens’ husband, former Star-Ledger judiciary reporter Robert Schwaneberg, was on Christie’s staff.

Instead, Christie nominated Superior Court Judge Faustino Fernandez-Vina, 61, the Camden County assignment judge and a Republican, to replace Hoens.

Sweeney accepted Fernandez-Vina, known as Fuzzy, and his nomination sailed through the State Senate.

Christie’s appointment of Fernandez-Vina increased Hispanic representation on the Supreme Court by one to one. It also restored South Jersey two seats.

Fernandez-Vina comes up for reappointment in late 2020 and Gov. Phil Murphy has hinted that he intends to continue the tradition of keeping sitting justices.  He turns 70 in 2022, and Murphy will get a chance to name his replacement if he wins re-election to a second term.

By 2014, Christie appeared to acknowledge that Bauman and Hanna would never make it to the Supreme Court.  He nominated Hanna for a Superior Court judgeship instead.

In a deal with Sweeney, Christie nominated superior Court Judge Lee Solomon, the Camden County assignment judge, to fill Long’s seat on the Supreme Court.

The 59-year-old Solomon came with a strong political resume: he started out as a councilman in Haddon Heights, won race for Camden County freeholder as a Republican, won a State Assembly seat in a 1992 special election convention in the 6th district, and ran for Congress against Rep. Rob Andrews later that year.

In 1995, Solomon lost his Assembly seat by 1,618 votes to Democrat Louis Greenwald (D-Voorhees).

He later served as Camden County prosecutor and as a Superior Court Judge before Christie hired him as the Deputy U.S. Attorney in charge of the South Jersey office – a post Murphy’s recent Supreme Court pick, Fabiana Pierre-Louis later held.

Christie appointed Solomon to serve as a commissioner of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities before returning him to the bench in 2011.

Solomon was confirmed by the Senate and took office 27 months after Long’s retirement.

Wallace’s seat remained vacant for six years until Christie and Sweeney final struck a deal in 2016.

Christie withdrew Bauman, a Republican, and instead nominated Walter Timpone, a 66-year-old Democrat with ties to both parties.

Timpone had served as a federal prosecutor and as a commissioner of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

He turns 70 on November 10 and will be replaced by Pierre-Louis if she wins Senate confirmation.

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