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NJ Gov. Christie To Deny Tenure To State’s Court’s Only African-American Justice


NJ Gov. Christie To Deny Tenure To State’s Court’s Only African-American Justice

By Susie Madrak

I predict New Jersey will very shortly be the California of the East. The voters’ insistence on punishing the Democrats in the last gubernatorial election leaves the heavily populated state in the hands of someone who’s very unsympathetic to anyone who isn’t white, suburban and Republican. Already he’s pulling the same accounting tricks utilized by Christine Todd Whitman - the same tactics that left the state in a massive financial hole.

But hey, he promised no tax increases!

TRENTON ## On a court known nationally for its judicial activism, state Supreme Court Justice John Wallace’s legacy may be bound to the one ruling that wasn’t his to make: Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to deny him tenure.

Christie’s action, unprecedented since the state revamped its constitution in 1947, fulfilled a campaign promise to reshape the court and drew cheers from the right.

Wallace is also the court’s only African-American justice in a state that’s 12 percent black.

It also brought cries from Democrats that the governor is politicizing the high court, threats that they will stall the nomination of Morris County attorney Anne Patterson and a virtually unheard of rebuke from the state’s chief justice.

The looming fight extends far beyond this one justice and could have an impact on the New Jersey court for decades to come.

“Batting the ball back and forth on political grounds is not going to be good for the independence of the court,” Rutgers Law School professor Robert Williams. “If judges have to gauge the perception their cases are going to receive in the political world, they may be a little less assertive in interpreting the constitution.”

Justices should look over their shoulders, said Steve Lonegan, a conservative whose Americans for Prosperity group waged a phone and e-mail campaign imploring Christie to keep his promise to change the court — starting with Wallace.

“This is what voters asked for,” Lonegan said. “For decades, I’ve watched governors and legislators run in fear from this court. It’s about time … it’s a great first step.”

Ah, yes, our good friends at Americans for Prosperity! Just another in the long list of wingnut front groups funded by right-wing billionaire David Koch! They’re the group behind the “grassroots” Tea Party, too. In fact, they front for just about any wingnut cause you can name - including climate change denial.

Christie will have the opportunity to reappoint or dismiss two more justices, and another will reach retirement age.

That could change the nature of the court, which has a national profile for rulings that include the Karen Ann Quinlan right to die case, the Baby M decision that condemned surrogate motherhood and the finding that the Boy Scouts’ ban on homosexuality violated state anti-discrimination laws. The court’s decisions also include school funding and affordable housing rulings criticized by some because of their price tag. “The Supreme Court is the driving force behind New Jersey’s high taxes,” Lonegan said.

Alan Tarr, director of the Center for State Constitutional studies at Rutgers, said there’s always been a political element to judicial appointments. More significant, he said, is Christie is “trying to give himself more leeway in school finance.”

By “more leeway,” he means Christie wants to channel extra funds to the heavily-Republican suburban districts. The court’s interpretation of the state constitution calls for equitable distribution ## and we can’t have that, can we?

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