Harris Defeat Underscores Political Impasse over Supreme Court
Democrats reject second Christie nominee in high-stakes battle for control of top court.
From NJ Spotlight:
Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Senate Democratic leaders are locked in a constitutional battle over the political balance and future independence of the New Jersey Supreme Court -- one that threatens to leave the once-proud high court two justices short all the way through next year’s gubernatorial election.
Thursday's Senate Judiciary Committee rejection of Bruce Harris, the Chatham Borough mayor who was the first gay and third African-American nominated to New Jersey’s highest court, was not really about Harris’ lack of courtroom experience. Nor was it based on his decision to recuse himself from any case involving the same-sex marriage laws he has previously endorsed -- certainly not any more than the previous rejection of Christie nominee Philip Kwon had to do with his mother’s failure to pay taxes on time.
The real issue, as both Christie and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) made clear following the committee’s 7-6 vote, is control of the New Jersey Supreme Court. This is the same court whose Abbott decisions requiring massive state aid to inner city schools and Mount Laurel rulings requiring low-income housing in the suburbs have been anathema to Christie and Republican leaders.
Christie and Scutari agree on the unwritten tradition in place since the 1947 New Jersey Constitution that no more than four out of the seven members of the state Supreme Court can be members of one party. What they disagree over is whether Supreme Court Associate Justice Jaynee LaVecchia should count as a Republican.
“Jaynee LaVecchia never registered as a Republican. Just because she worked for two Republican governors doesn’t make her a Republican,” Christie said of LaVecchia, who served as deputy chief counsel for Republican Gov. Tom Kean and as director of the Division of Law and banking commissioner under GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, but has never declared a party affiliation.
“LaVecchia is a Republican who worked in Republican administrations and had Republican campaign contributions in the past,” Scutari countered, referring to LaVecchia’s $500 contribution to state Senator Leonard Lance’s reelection campaign in 1999, the year before her Supreme Court nomination. “Just because you haven’t registered as a Republican doesn’t mean you’re not a Republican.”
It’s a question of arithmetic. If LaVecchia counts as an independent, then Christie would be entitled to appoint two Republicans to the existing Supreme Court vacancies to join Associate Justices Helen Hoens and Anne Patterson. If LaVecchia is considered a Republican, then Christie would be entitled to appoint only one more Republican, and the remaining spot would have to go to a Democrat or an independent. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Associate Justice Barry Albin are both Democrats.
“Christie can have four: we just don’t want him to have five -- a supermajority,” Scutari said, asserting that one of Christie’s two appointees should be a Democrat.
“If they’re waiting for me to appoint a Democrat to the Supreme Court because of their convoluted logic, their false logic, on Jaynee LaVecchia, they’ll be waiting a long time,” Christie said. “If they want a Democrat on the court, they’d better win the next election.”
Christie stated that he would not allow himself to be the first governor since the 1947 Constitution not to have four justices of his own party on the court, especially not after several decades in which “they’ve had their policy objectives protected by a Democratic majority on the Supreme Court.”
Left unsaid by both sides is that whether LaVecchia is really an independent or a Republican, she is certainly not a “Christie Republican.” For Christie, a reliably conservative Republican majority would consist of Hoens, who is married to one of his policy aides and is up for reappointment later this year, plus Patterson and two more of his own appointees – a majority that Kwon and Harris presumably would have provided.
For Christie, LaVecchia doesn’t count.
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