Lambda Legal Hails Good Day for New Jersey Court, But Remains Troubled by Process

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May 21, 2014

Today, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced that  he will renominate Stuart Rabner as Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court and that the state Senate will then hold confirmation hearings to fill one of the two vacancies on the bench. This news comes after months of advocacy by legal and community organizations urging Gov. Christie to stop playing politics with the court, including a petition circulated by Lambda Legal, New Jersey-based legal organizations, citizens groups and unions and signed by 7,000 New Jerseyans.

Lambda Legal launched the petition campaign just two weeks ago in conjunction with New Jersey-based legal organizations, citizens groups, and unions. The groups also report that more than 47,000 people have watched the campaign’s companion video: “Bullying the Bench: Governor Christie’s Attack on New Jersey Courts."

Lambda Legal Fair Courts Project Manager Eric Lesh said:

It’s clear from the public’s response to the petition that New Jerseyans want a fair judiciary and they don’t want their judges used as political pawns by the executive branch. While it is good Governor Christie has not taken the unprecedented step to reject the renomination of the Chief Justice, we remain concerned about the politicization of the judicial confirmation and retention process. 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. 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.

In 2010, Gov. Christie became the first New Jersey governor since the ratification of the New Jersey constitution in 1947 not to reappoint a sitting Supreme Court justice. Many reacted with shock when he chose to end the service of Justice John Wallace, a respected jurist and the New Jersey Supreme Court's only African-American justice. In 2012, the governor declined to reappoint another sitting Supreme Court member, Justice Helen Hoens, resulting in two as yet unfilled vacancies on the seven-member Court..

Lambda Legal and other advocates for fair courts were concerned that Gov. Christie would once again play politics with the Court, this time regarding the reappointment of Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, author of an October 2013, decision in Garden State Equality v. Dow that was instrumental in providing the freedom for same-sex couples to marry in the state. Gov. Christie roundly criticized the ruling.

The campaign to protect the courts includes a video, online petition and other activities to engage residents of New Jersey to speak out about protecting the courts from improper political influence. Organizations joining Lambda Legal in the petition effort include: CWA New Jersey, New Jersey Citizen Action, Latino Action Network, and Blue Jersey.

Lesh added:

As the victory for marriage equality in New Jersey shows, we often have to go to court to fight for our rights. When we do, we absolutely have to trust that the process was fair - win or lose. Judges do not serve the governor - they serve the people and protect the very structure of our democracy. Courts provide an important check on the executive and legislative branches to protect us from overreach, safeguarding our cherished constitutional rights and liberties, especially when we're not in the majority. We need fair courts.

The petition is available here.

Read the press release here.