On May 21 the New Jersey legal community awoke to the news that a deal had been struck between Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. President Stephen Sweeney – Chief Justice Stuart Rabner would be nominated for tenure and Judge Lee Solomon would be nominated to fill one of the high court’s two vacant seats. Rabner’s re-appointment provides some sense of certainty about the direction of the court system since he will serve as Chief Justice until 2030, or until he resigns or is impeached, whichever comes soonest.
In the next 16 years we can expect to see many things about the courts change despite the judicial branch’s preference for precedent. Rabner has set a precedent of thoughtful change during his seven year tenure as Chief that is likely to continue. During his recent state of the judiciary address, Rabner detailed many of the efforts the court has made to become more user friendly, and discussed changes that are currently in process. He specifically highlighted the current efforts to speed civil trials and make the courts more business friendly.
Rabner’s re-appointment is a compromise, and what Gov. Christie got out of the deal was the appointment of Judge Lee Solomon to fill one of the two associate justice vacancies left by Christie’s decision not to reappoint Justice John Wallace in 2010 and Justice Helen Hoens in 2013. Solomon, a former legislator, prosecutor and Board of Public Utilities president, is presently Camden County Assignment judge, the same position held by Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina when he was named to the Supreme Court last fall.
With the confirmation of Rabner and Solomon the composition of the court will stay 3 Democrats, 3 Republicans, and 1 independent. Gov. Christie has indicated that he would like to see a more conservative court, and that appears to be the main cause of delay since the state Senate, which confirms appointments, is controlled by Democrats.
It is not clear if this compromise will break the logjam on lower court vacancies around the state. On one hand it shows that the governor and the senate are willing to compromise on this issue, but at the same time the compromise that was reached did leave one seat on the high court vacant. This suggests there is still disagreement between the governmental branches.