N.J. panel approves two high court nominees

Stuart Rabner , chief justice, would stay on.
Stuart Rabner , chief justice, would stay on.
Posted: June 18, 2014

TRENTON - The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday approved Gov. Christie's two nominees - one a Democrat, the other a Republican - to the state Supreme Court, advancing with little dissent a deal brokered by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester).

The deal will likely keep Democratic Chief Justice Stuart Rabner on the court, while adding to the bench Camden County Republican Lee Solomon, a state court judge who has ties to Christie and has been praised by Democrats.

The full Senate is expected to decide Thursday on the nominations of Rabner and Solomon, who cleared the Judiciary Committee by votes of 11-2 for Rabner and 12-1 for Solomon.

The first four hours of Monday's hearing were spent on Rabner, 53, who was first nominated to the court in 2007 by Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine. If confirmed by the full Senate, he could serve until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.

A former federal prosecutor who worked for Christie while the Republican governor was the state's U.S. attorney, Rabner was considered in danger of losing his seat after a battle over the court's composition, which began with Christie taking the unprecedented step of denying tenure to Justice John Wallace in 2010.

Sweeney responded by blocking some of the governor's nominees, a stalemate that has resulted in two vacancies on the seven-member court. The addition of Solomon and retention of Rabner - through a deal Christie and Sweeney announced last month - would leave only one vacancy.

During a call-in radio show Monday night, Christie, who has repeatedly criticized the court as overly activist, said the nominations were "not everything I would have wanted or everything I think I'm entitled to as governor."

But "I think it is a significantly better court than when I got here," Christie said.

Rabner has authored opinions on controversial topics, including one that paved the way for gay marriage to become legal in New Jersey and another that barred Christie from disbanding the state's affordable housing agency.

On Monday, Rabner mostly faced questions about his administration of the court system, as well as his role in relation to the executive and legislative branches.

But he was challenged on why he had recused himself from opinions on the state's school-funding formula - a favorite target for Christie, who blames the court's funding mandates for the state's high property taxes.

Rabner said he had recused himself because he provided legal advice related to the issue while serving as Corzine's general counsel in 2006 and as state attorney general from 2006 to 2007.

As time passes, Rabner said, "I would look if possible within the ethical restrictions to participate."

That didn't satisfy Sen. Michael Doherty (R., Warren), who told Rabner his approach was "a little unusual."

A fierce opponent of the school-funding formula, which gives more state aid to districts with a high percentage of poor students, Doherty grilled Rabner on the court's approach, accusing justices of a "lack of intellectual curiosity" in reviewing factors he believed were relevant to funding.

Rabner said the court's role was "not to opine on the merits" or "the implementation we've laid out of particular laws," but to decide whether legislation meets constitutional requirements.

"If there is a concrete case presented to the courts where parties have laid out their arguments . . . courts can address those questions," he said.

In his opening remarks, Rabner seemed to address Christie's criticism of the courts as unaccountable to the public, describing issues before the court as "more than academic questions. They are tied to the very fabric of the state and its people."

Other questions focused on Rabner's role in selecting a tiebreaker to the state's redistricting commission, which in 2011 approved a map that gave Democrats a decided advantage for at least 10 years. Rabner, who selected a tiebreaker based on suggestions from both parties, said he would use the same method again.

Rabner also was questioned about the state of the judiciary in light of the persistent vacancies. Questioned by Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R., Monmouth) on whether he had tried to resolve the impasse, Rabner said he had "by and large spoken privately, and in a sustained way."

Doherty and Kyrillos voted against Rabner, who has been opposed by conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity.

Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R., Bergen), who said he recently called for Christie not to renominate Rabner, voted for the chief justice.

Calling Rabner "a sincere individual," Cardinale said, "I believe the court in New Jersey is, has been, and continues to be a policy-making body. And as long as it is going to be a policy-making body, I think we should have people of good conscience who are members of that court and leading that court."

Senators spent much less time questioning Solomon, 59, who also worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office under Christie.

A Camden County assignment judge who served in the Assembly in the 1990s, Solomon was named by Christie in 2002 to the newly created position of deputy U.S. attorney for the southern vicinages of New Jersey.

Solomon later became a state Superior Court judge in Camden County. In 2010, Christie, as governor, named Solomon to a cabinet-level position as president of the Board of Public Utilities.

Christie nominated Solomon again to become a Superior Court judge in 2011. The governor also chose Solomon's wife, Dianne, to become president of the BPU.

Solomon said Monday that he had "no discussion with the governor about any policy question."

His record as a lawmaker came under some scrutiny, with Doherty - the lone vote against Solomon - questioning his sponsorship of a bill mandating preschool in districts receiving more state aid, as well as an endorsement he received from an abortion-rights group.

Solomon did not discuss his views on policy questions that he said could come before the court, but said his actions as a legislator would not influence his decision-making as a justice.

"My responsibility is to judge and determine solely on the law and apply it to the facts," he said.





comments powered by Disqus