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Former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz. (Photo: Norman Francis via Flickr).

Democrats add Poritz to list of congressional redistricting tiebreakers

Republicans view ex-Chief Justice as unacceptable compromise pick

By David Wildstein, July 26 2021 12:17 am

Democrats on the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission have added a second option to their list of candidates for tiebreaker, but the new candidate – former Chief Justice Deborah Poritz – is hardly an acceptable pick for Republicans.

In a letter to the Republicans obtained by the New Jersey Globe, Democratic redistricting chair Janice Fuller proposed either their original candidate, former Supreme Court Justice John E. Wallace, Jr., or Poritz.

The addition of Poritz comes on Sunday came five days after Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote to the commission asking them to reconvene and try again to arrive at a consensus pick.

The two parties were unable to agree on a pick when they met on July 15 – the to choose a tiebreaker. Democrats chose Wallace and Republicans selected former Superior Court Judge Marina Corodemus.

If the congressional mapmaking panel fails to agree on a candidate by July 15, the State Constitution sends the names of the top two vote-getters to the Supreme Court, which is required to pick one of the two candidates,

Democrats held a virtual meeting on Saturday morning, but ended without an agreement.  Some members wanted to submit another name and others preferred to simply acknowledge Rabner’s letter and let him know they were willing to meet with the Republicans in search of a compromise.

But by late Saturday, the group convened a second time and decided to go with a second candidate, Poritz, to give the Supreme Court another option.

Fuller also told Steinhardt that the Democrats were willing to meet with Republicans to discuss their options in advance of the chief justice’s July 30 deadline.

Rabner’s office was copied on the correspondence from Fuller to Steinhardt.

The point of the letter, Democratic sources suggested, was to show Rabner that Democrats were willing to help spare the Supreme Court from having to choose between a candidate of one particular party.

At no time during the meetings did Democrats discuss embracing the Demcoratic candidate, Corodemus.

The Supreme Court has until August 10 to pick the 13th member of the Congressional Redistricting Commission.

It’s not immediately clear how either party can work around the State Constitution, which simply says that both sides must vote and if no candidate receives seven of the twelve votes, the Supreme Court must choose between the two candidates receiving the most votes.  It is also unclear how an extra name could be added to the list.

Rabner pointedly asked for a consensus, so it’s not certain if his intent was to have an additional name sent to the court.

There is some irony to the suggestion of Poritz as a last-minute replacement candidate for Wallace despite the passage of the constitutional deadline to propose candidates for the tiebreaker position.  Poritz was chief justice in 2002 when the court voted unanimously to allow Democrats to pick a new candidate for U.S. Senate after incumbent Bob Torricelli, trailing Republican Douglas Forrester, dropped out of the race.

Republicans on Sunday noted that when Poritz had the opportunity to appoint a tiebreaker for legislative redistricting in 2001, her pick, Princeton University professor Larry Bartels, supported a map that gave a decisive ten-year advantage to Democrats.

Wallace’s candidacy for tiebreaker comes with some gravitas.  He’s a respected former jurist, not involved in politics, and he’s remained largely silent since Republican Gov. Chris Christie refused to renominate him to the Supreme Court in 2010, just two years before he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

But he also practices law at a politically connected law firm where one of the partners, Bill Tambussi, is Democratic powerbroker George Norcross’ personal attorney and Rep. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) is a stakeholder in congressional redistricting.

While Wallace could be viewed as not entirely independent, Republicans view Poritz as overtly political.

Since leaving the court in 2006, the 84-year-old Poritz has put considerable distance between herself and Republicans, specifically in several attacks leveled at Christie.

Poritz accused Christie of threatening the independence of the judiciary and in 2016, at an event at the Princeton Public Library, she publicly slammed Christie’s record, called him a “bully,” criticized his budget cuts – specifically on funding infrastructure projects – and accused him of “scapegoating public workers.”

That happened says before the New Hampshire presidential primary.  Christie ended his bid for the White House after finishing sixth with just 7% of the vote.

Poritz also waded into a controversial policy issue as chair of the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission that recommended dropping mandatory minimums for some non-violent offenses.  She issued a joint statement with the Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, in an attempt to sway some lawmakers who opposed legislation to implement the panel’s recommendations.

Some Republicans, pointing to Poritz’s shift to the left – she had been originally nominated as the state’s first woman chief justice by Gov. Christine Todd Whitman – and cited her service as a board member of The Fund for New Jersey, a major non-profit organization that funds multiple progressive groups.  Some of the recipients of those funds are backing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of organization lines in New Jersey primary elections.

Poritz and another retired Supreme Court Justice, Virginia Long, had been finalists before Democrats convinced Wallace to become a candidate.

Long, a former member of Gov. Brendan Byrne’s cabinet, also came with some risk.

Records show that her law firm, Fox Rothschild, has a political action committee that has contributed to several members of the New Jersey congressional delegation.  The firm has a Washington office that directly lobbies members of Conrgess, including those who are stakeholders in the current redistricting process.

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