Will Christie punish a New Jersey judge for his gay-marriage ruling?
The New Jersey Supreme Court justice who led Gov. Chris Christie to abandon his fight over a court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in the Garden State could face political retribution from the Republican governor.
Last October, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner delivered the court’s unanimous opinion denying a request by the Christie administration to put on hold a ruling by a lower court permitting same-sex marriage in the state while the case is appealed. Although the decision was not a final decision in the case, which was supposed to go before the high court several months later, many looked to the 7-0 decision allowing same-sex marriages to begin Oct. 21 as a preview of how the New Jersey Supreme Court could rule when the justices reached the merits of the case. The Christie administration appeared to agree.
“Chief Justice Stuart Rabner left no ambiguity about the unanimous court’s view on the ultimate decision in this matter when he wrote, ‘same-sex couples who cannot marry are not treated equally under the law today,’” a Christie spokesman said at the time. “Although the Governor strongly disagrees with the Court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the Court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law. The Governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his Administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court.”
But now, with Rabner up for reappointment to the bench in June, marriage-equality supporters fear the potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate may punish Rabner for his majority opinion.
“If a law unconstitutionally discriminates against people or deprives them of equality or liberty, it is a judge’s duty to strike that law down,” said Eric Lesh, Fair Courts Project Manager for Lambda Legal, in a statement. On Monday, Lambda Legal, which filed the original court case, launched a petition along with several New Jersey-based organizations urging Christie “not to play politics with the New Jersey Supreme Court.”
“Whether it’s the freedom to marry, affordable housing or equality in education, the people of New Jersey need to trust that the courts will safeguard their constitutional rights,” Lesh continued. “We do not want judges looking over their shoulders to make sure they aren’t deciding a case in a way that is at odds with a governor’s political agenda.”
Lambda Legal has been joined by CWA New Jersey, New Jersey Citizen Action, Latino Action Network and Blue Jersey in its petition effort. The petition comes after Christie declined to reappoint Justice John Wallace, a Democrat and the court’s only African-American justice, in 2010. The move made Christie the first New Jersey governor since the ratification of the New Jersey Constitution in 1947 to not reappoint a sitting Supreme Court justice. Two years later, in 2012, Christie declined to reappoint Justice Helen Hoens, a Republican, as well.
According to a resolution released by the New Jersey State Bar Association in February, “[I]t would be an unprecedented intrusion of politics into the third co-equal branch, and continued evidence of attempts to undermine the independence of that branch, to decline the reappointment of the sitting Chief Justice, the person entrusted to lead the judicial branch of government, as no chief justice has been denied tenure under our current constitution.”
New Jersey’s largest group of legal professionals further stated that Rabner has “unquestionably demonstrated the knowledge and decorum to serve, and has, in fact, served on the Supreme Court with distinction” since he was nominated by Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and confirmed in June 2007.
Although Christie has not indicated if he will renominate Rabner, he also has not said if he will remove him. However, Christie has expressed a desire to reshape the high court. In a video released by Lambda Legal as part of its campaign to have Rabner renominated, news clips show Christie criticizing the “liberal activist court.” And as The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart wrote in October, removing Rabner from the court could throw some red meat to social conservatives who criticized his decision to cease his legal fight over same-sex marriage, despite the fact that Christie vetoed marriage-equality legislation in February 2012. Christie soared to reelection in November with 60 percent of the vote in the predominately blue state, but has seen his approval rating drop severely following the George Washington Bridge scandal.
Christie has also lashed out at Rabner before. In July 2013, Christie blasted Rabner’s “activist opinion” to rule against efforts to disband New Jersey’s Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), voicing arguments mirroring those often used by same-sex marriage opponents against “activist judges.”
Accusing “this liberal Supreme Court” of ignoring elected lawmakers and continuing to “blindly perpetuate its failed social experiment in housing,” Christie made what could easily be construed as a threat: “This only steels my determination to continue to fight to bring common sense back to New Jersey’s judiciary.”