Eight former New Jersey Supreme Court justices on Thursday urged Gov. Chris Christie to change his mind and renominate Justice John Wallace Jr. to tenure on the high court, but the governor said no.
The eight -- all the living former justices except Peter Verniero -- issued a statement saying there were no suggestions, even from Christie, that Wallace isn't qualified.
To nominate a replacement threatened the independence of the judiciary and violated the intent of the framers of the 1947 state constitution, they said.
"No one, not even the governor, suggests that Justice Wallace is not qualified to serve," the ex-justices said. "He has demonstrated, as a trial judge, as an appellate judge, and as an Associate Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court for almost seven years, integrity, thoughtfulness, scholarship, compassion and adherence to the rule of law. We can ask no more of any judge."
Former Chief Justices Deborah Poritz and James Zazzali and Associate Justices Robert Clifford, James Coleman Jr., Gary Stein, Marie Garibaldi, Alan Handler and Stewart Pollock signed the statement.
It was an unprecedented mass denunciation of a political decision affecting the high court by former justices and it demonstrated how deeply Christie's decision has shaken the pillars of the state's legal establishment.
The jurists gave the governor a history lesson starting with the constitutional convention delegates' eagerness to get politics out of the judicial process, particularly in the reappointment of justices "because the independence of the judiciary has been a bedrock principle followed by every Governor."
Christie responded with a lecture on political science.
He said his decision was final and told reporters, "Tell them thanks for their input."
"But as they well know, being Supreme Court justices, the constitution very clearly vests in the governor the ability to decide who is appointed to the Supreme Court, not to anyone else other than the governor," he said.
"And certainly not to former justices of the Supreme Court who got there because a governor selected them. So I appreciate their input and I honor their service. If they'd like to make those choices, there's another election in 2013, they can feel free to get on the ballot and see how they do," he said.
He added: "The illusion that politics has not been in the court before is laughable. Every, every, appointment to the Supreme Court has had a political element to it. Every one of them. So the idea all of a sudden that politics is coming into play for the first time in the pristine 60-plus-year history of the new Supreme Court is laughable."
Christie, eager to start remaking a court he has characterized as too liberal, broke with precedent on May 3 and announced he would not renominate Wallace, a Democrat whose seven-year probationary term ends May 20.
He asked the state Senate to confirm a replacement, Republican Anne Patterson, a partner at Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti in Morristown.
Pollock, who is of counsel to Riker Danzig, recalled on Thursday that Patterson appeared before him when he was an associate justice from 1979 to 1999.
"She's a superb lawyer and a fine person," he said on Thursday. And he said Christie made a good decision when he selected her as his nominee. But Pollock also said he disagreed with the governor's decision not to renominate Wallace. He said he was speaking for himself and not for his firm.
He and the seven other ex-justices recalled in their statement how an initial draft of the constitution that called for immediate lifetime tenure for justices was rewritten to provide for lifetime tenure after an initial seven-year appointment to assure the appointee's fitness.
"There is simply no question about the intent of the framers of our Constitution: reappointment would be denied only when a judge was deemed unfit, a standard that ensured the independence of the State's judiciary under the Constitution," the ex-justices wrote. "That standard, embraced and followed for more than sixty years, is imbued with constitutional value."
They echoed statements by previous critics of the governor's decision that not reappointing Wallace would send a message to untenured judges that they risk losing a chance for tenure if they make decisions a governor doesn't like.
"No Governor before now has sought to control the Third Branch of government through the reappointment process," the former justices said. "Judicial decisions must be made without fear of retaliation: competence, integrity, impartiality -- those qualities have been fostered by law and by tradition. Every litigant before the Court has known that his or her case would be decided fairly, without undue political influence, by impartial, independent judges."
Verniero said, “I have chosen not to participate in the public discussion of judicial reappointment."