Sweeney: In Kowtowing To Far Right By Dumping Wallace, Governor Inserts Politics Into The Judicial System

Senate President Says Governor’s Supreme Court Decision Ignorant of History

TRENTON – Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney today expressed his extreme disappointment that Governor Christie decided to inject “rank politics” into the historic independence of the state’s judiciary by bowing to pressure from the far-right in failing to renominate state Supreme Court Justice John Wallace.

“The Governor today tossed aside decades of precedent and decided that rank politics and ideology trump practical experience when choosing who will sit on the state’s highest court,” said Sweeney (D-Gloucester/Cumberland/Salem). “By any measure, John Wallace is a model jurist who puts the facts first and foremost in every decision. His removal is an affront to judicial independence. The Governor has sent the message to judges across the entire state that if they aspire to sit on the Supreme Court they better start practicing politics rather than law.”

“Justice Wallace’s reputation, experience and service prove him to be the most qualified and only sensible choice for this seat on the Court,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas P. Scutari (D-Union). “Perhaps the Governor spent too much time in the federal government to understand the significance of his decision for our state’s Constitution. The off-handed dismissal of this jurist shows a lack of respect for the co-equal branches of government and offends every Governor who has preceded him.”

Sweeney said no individual is more qualified to serve on the Court than Justice Wallace. Over his career, Wallace had served as a municipal judge in Washington Township (Gloucester County), an appellate judge and a Superior Court judge before being named to the Supreme Court. New Jersey legal observers have noted that Wallace has a reputation for being an independent, even-tempered justice who takes a scholarly approach to the law.

Sweeney noted Wallace is far from being the type of “activist judge” that conservatives have opposed in the past. He backed the court’s majority opinion to allow the state’s school funding formula to stand, ending the nearly 30 years of ad hoc funding through the Abbott system. Wallace also voted to uphold the death penalty for depraved convicts like Ambrose Harris before capital punishment was abolished in 2008 – one of several decisions that have earned him a reputation for being tough on crime.

While conservatives often look at the Abbott rulings, the Mt. Laurel affordable-housing case and the 2002 ballot case as evidence of liberal judicial bias, Wallace was not even on the court when those cases were heard and decided.

Sweeney said the decision marks Gov. Christie’s departure from his gubernatorial mentor, Tom Kean. In 1986, Gov. Kean renominated Democratic Justice Robert Wilentz over the heated grumblings from his own party. Kean defended his decision by noting Wilentz’ well-regarded reputation for fairness, saying, “I disagree with him half the time, too, but he’s not there to agree with me. He’s there to uphold the constitution.

Governor Kean also said: “In the end, I knew some would never forgive me for the reappointment (Wilentz). But I upheld the principle of the independence of the judiciary, something that will matter long after my term in office has expired.”

If he had been renominated, Wallace would have been able to only serve 22 more months on the court, at which point he would reach the mandatory retirement age of 70; Christie would still be governor.

“It’s sad that the Governor would play politics with a court seat that he’ll have the chance to fill, anyway,” said Sweeney. “In his desire to finally be accepted by the conservative wing of his party and draw applause from right-wing pundits, the Governor sold out the independence of the judiciary in the name of politics. Instead of being another Tom Kean, he’s become another Rick Perry.”