New Jersey High Court Weighs School Cuts Amid Impasse

N.J. Supreme Court to Weigh School Funding Cuts Amid Impasse
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Photographer: Tim Larsen/Office of the Governor via Bloomberg

The New Jersey Supreme Court, already embroiled in a battle with Governor Chris Christie over its membership, heard arguments today on whether the governor unlawfully cut $1 billion in school aid during a budget crisis.

The case turns on whether Christie, a Republican, and the Democratic-controlled Legislature violated a 2009 ruling by the Trenton-based court to provide adequate funding to the state’s 31 poorest school districts. Christie and lawmakers imposed the 13 percent reduction to help close a $10.7 billion deficit.

While Christie and lawmakers agreed on the cuts, they’re locked in a political standoff over who will serve on the seven-member court. Last year, Christie refused to reappoint Justice John Wallace, the only black member. That led the Senate president to block Christie’s nominee. The chief justice then named a temporary replacement for Wallace, leading another justice to refuse to vote when the interim member is involved.

“You have all three branches of government in this politicization of the court, and that really is unprecedented,” said Joseph Marbach, a political scientist and the provost at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. “But I don’t suspect it will affect how the court rules on school funding.”

Christie’s rejection of Wallace, a Democrat, upended a bipartisan tradition that began after the state’s current Constitution was adopted in 1947. Since then, no governor has failed to reappoint a justice or made an appointment that put more than four members of one party on the court -- even if it meant Democrats appointing Republicans and vice versa.

School Case

The court now includes three Democrats, two Republicans, an independent and the temporary judge, Edwin Stern.

The school-funding case involves a law signed in January 2008 that gave extra money to the poorest districts, following a series of cases spanning three decades known as Abbott v. Burke. In 2009, the high court ruled that the new law was constitutional and fairly replaced the previous system.

Now, the Education Law Center, a Newark-based nonprofit that advocates for the districts, wants the court to rule that the cutbacks enacted for the 2010-11 school year violate its 2009 ruling on the funding formula.

Allocation Issue

The reductions “strike at the very heart of this court’s decision upholding the formula’s constitutionality,” the center said in court papers. The extra state funds help districts in communities including Camden, Jersey City, and Newark, the state’s largest municipality, where a budget crisis forced Mayor Cory Booker to fire more than 10 percent of the police force.

“The constitutional mandate for a thorough and efficient education for our public-school children has never been diluted, excused or set aside because the state was facing financial difficulties,” David Sciarra, director of the center, told the panel during oral arguments. “Everyone’s suffered.”

Christie, whose first budget didn’t raise taxes, said in an interview that he’s confident the court will rule his way.

“I’m not going to get into hypotheticals of what the court might do or not do,” Christie, 48, said yesterday. “I think that everything we did in the budget was fiscally necessary and completely constitutional, and I’m confident the court will find that as well.”

Ronald Chen, the vice dean of Rutgers School of Law-Newark, said in an interview that “the court will probably try to find some way to accommodate the reality that the state is in a fiscal crisis right now, with its ultimate requirement to enforce the state’s Constitution.”

Too ‘Activist’

Christie has pledged to overhaul the high court, which he has said is too “activist.” He started in May by refusing to reappoint Wallace, then 68, after his initial seven-year term. Supreme Court justices receive tenure if they are reappointed after a first term. The judges face mandatory retirement at 70.

New Jersey’s top court, which once included William J. Brennan Jr., who became a leading liberal on the U.S. Supreme Court, developed a reputation for liberal decisions through such cases as the so-called Mount Laurel rulings. In that decision, the justices held that zoning that resulted in exclusion of minorities was the same as racial discrimination.

In another case, the justices ruled that the Boy Scouts of America illegally expelled a member who said he was homosexual. That decision was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

When Christie proposed a Republican corporate lawyer, Anne Murray Patterson, 51, to replace Wallace, Senate President Stephen Sweeney refused to hold confirmation hearings, effectively blocking her appointment.

Jersey Politics

The stalemate doesn’t reflect on Patterson’s qualifications, said Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford. Rather, he said, it’s a protest against Christie’s tactics.

“It’s about the independence of the court,” Sweeney, a leader of the International Association of Ironworkers, said in an interview yesterday. “He chose to monkey around with that to curry favor with the national conservative movement.”

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, 50, stepped in and named Stern, 69, to replace Wallace, setting off a protest last month by Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto, 57, a Republican. Rabner, who served in Democratic Governor Jon Corzine’s administration as attorney general, recused himself from today’s case, according to Winnie Comfort, a spokeswoman, who said she didn’t know why Rabner took that action.

‘No-Show Job’

In a ruling last month, Rivera-Soto said the state Constitution only permits Rabner to make a temporary appointment to the high court in order to reach a quorum of five judges. Rivera-Soto refused to rule on cases in which Stern took part. He said his colleagues were trying to “cajole, badger or threaten submission to the majority’s view of a constitutional question.”

Some Democratic lawmakers called on Rivera-Soto to resign. Sweeney said the judge “created a no-show job for himself” by abstaining from making rulings.

Rivera-Soto was nominated to the court by Democratic Governor James McGreevey and assumed the job in September 2004. He is the first Hispanic-American to serve on the court. On Jan. 3, Rivera-Soto said he won’t seek reappointment when his seven-year term ends in September and will return to private practice.

“There’s always the danger of a perception that the current political uncertainty over the political composition of the court might cast a cloud over its credibility,” Rutgers’s Chen said. “I’m worried about it.”

The seven-year term of Justice Helen Hoens, a Republican, will expire before Christie’s four-year term ends. Justice Virginia Long, 68 and a tenured Democrat, must retire when she turns 70 in March 2012.

Lost Tradition

The tradition of New Jersey governors reappointing justices seated by their predecessors, and of the Senate giving quick consideration to high-court nominees, has ended, Chen said.

The impasse has hurt the court’s public image, said Mark Alexander, a law professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.

“This definitely makes people think that politics is everywhere, including in the courts, and that’s not good,” Alexander said. “The courts deserve better than what’s happening right now.”

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