Updated at 5:48 pm
In a surprise move that adds another chapter to the saga of New Jersey’s judicial crisis, Gov. Christie announced Monday that he will seek to replace Republican Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens with Camden County Superior Court Assignment Judge Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina.
The Cuban-born judge, who in a ruling last year helped pave the way for the controversial new Camden County police force, would be the high court’s only representative from South Jersey. Christie said Fernandez-Vina is a Republican, although election records listed him as a Democrat.
The governor’s decision is an attempt to break a long-standing logjam that has resulted in two vacancies on the seven-member Supreme Court, now temporarily filled by lower-court judges. Christie said he had nothing against Hoens — he praised her and said she deserved to be renominated for tenure, as is the custom for judges who reach seven years of service.
But “I was not going to let her loose to the animals,” Christie explained, referring to the Democrats.
He said he wanted to avoid subjecting Hoens to the “awful treatment” that the Democratic-controlled Senate have given to his other court nominees, who faced repeated questions over business dealings and partisan affiliations.
Hoens’ reappointment would have required confirmation from the Senate, at which point she would have kept her job until the mandatory retirement age of 70, but at least one Democratic senator had recently cast doubt on her winning senatorial approval.
The 61-year-old Fernandez-Vina, on the other hand, has had Democrat support in the past — Democrats confirmed him in 2004 and reconfirmed him for a tenured position in 2011 — so Christie said there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be approved once again.
And although Christie didn’t mention this, one of Fernandez-Vina’s recent rulings may also tip the scales in his favor.
In a decision last year, the judge ruled against activists who had sought to put a question about disbanding the Camden City police department on the ballot. That allowed City Council to disband the 184-year-old force and join a new Camden County department — a move shepherded by both Christie and South Jersey Democrats.
By Monday afternoon Democratic Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd released a statement endorsing the nomination, although the Democratic leader in the senate, Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, was mum.
Ralph Lamparello, president of the state’s bar association, blasted Monday’s nomination, defending Hoens and saying in a statement that she “does not deserve to be treated as a political pawn in the battle between the governor and the Legislature.”
He added: “The result of today’s action will be further erosion of the independence of our courts, whose role as the third branch of government is to balance the other two branches and to protect the rights of the citizens of this state.”
Lamparello blamed Christie for creating and furthering the judicial crisis.
Christie said he told Hoens in a 20-minute phone call Monday morning that she would be replaced.
“I simply could not be party to the destruction of Helen Hoens' professional reputation,” Christie said. “I'm taking responsibility for not allowing this group of people do to her what they did to [previous nominees] Phil Kwon and Bruce Harris.”
Kwon and Harris were rejected by the Senate — the first time that had happened in New Jersey history — while two others, Board of Public Utilities President Robert Hanna and Monmouth County Superior Court Judge David Bauman, are awaiting hearings.
Democrats have only confirmed one of Christie’s Supreme Court nominees, Anne Patterson, during his nearly four years in office.
Christie wants to roll back Supreme Court decisions that mandate affordable housing and require more money for urban school districts, but he has been stymied by the court at almost every turn — rare defeats for a governor who has otherwise been successful at navigating an opposition-controlled Legislature.
Much of the criticism about Christie’s previous nominees were based on the argument that the court needs to have partisan balance. For example, although Kwon was a registered independent, Democrats opposed him in part because he had worked for the Republican governor and had been a Republican when he lived in New York.
Fernandez-Vina, who lives in Barrington, Camden County, and graduated from Rutgers-Camden Law School in 1978, brings with him a whole new set of political party questions.
He was first nominated to Superior Court in 2004 by Democratic Gov. James E. McGreevey, and he is listed in public records as a Democrat. But Camden County Superintendent of Elections Phyllis Pearl said Monday that the party affiliation is a mistake, possibly due to “corrupted data” incurred during one of three computer software conversions in recent years.
“To my knowledge he is a Republican and has only been a Republican,” Pearl said in an interview.
Asked how she knows in the absence of written proof, Pearl said: “I’ve known the man for years, he’s always been a Republican.”
Fernandez-Vina has not voted in a primary in at least 15 years, so the discrepancy was never discovered, Pearl said. There is no paper record available, she said.
Campaign finance databases show that before he became a judge he made at least one donation to Democratic legislators and one to a Republican legislator.
The judicial stalemate that has become a hallmark of the Christie era dates to 2010, when Christie took the historically unprecedented step of denying tenure to Justice John Wallace, a Gloucester County Democrat. Christie said that it was his prerogative to make the court less “activist” and “liberal,” but Democrats accused him of trying to buck a tradition of independence and make the court overly conservative.
With the loss of Wallace, the only black justice, and the subsequent resignation of Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto, who is Hispanic, Democrats were loud in their demands for a more diverse court.
Christie said he agreed with that need, and noted Monday that his picks have been extraordinarily diverse. In addition to Fernandez-Vina, Christie has nominated a gay African American and two Asian-Americans. None of the three have been confirmed.
Christie urged the senate to act soon, saying it was necessary to replace the temporary justices.
“The court is being damaged by a group of acting judges being put on the Supreme Court who do not have the constitutional authority to act the way they’re acting,” he said.
Christie did not give specific policy reasons for his choice of Fernandez-Vina, but he said he liked him as a person.
Fernandez-Vina was at the Statehouse announcement but said little. "It would be an honor to sit on our great state’s highest court," he said.
Hoens, 59, released a statement Monday that read in part: “I am of course saddened that I will not be able to continue in this extraordinary professional calling, but I am thankful beyond words for the great privilege and honor of having been able to serve the people of this great State as a Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.”