Christie wrong to dismiss black justice

At age 68, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice John E. Wallace Jr. would only have two more years to serve before mandatory retirement, if reappointed. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer )


Gov. Christie’s take-no-prisoners approach to government is threatening to derail his efforts to lead the state through tough times. What may have seemed refreshing in his first 100 days has gotten old fast. Even when you agree with what the governor is trying to accomplish, it’s hard to accept his attitude that the opposition is to be sneered at when it begs for compromise or suggests that there might be a more amenable route to the end he desires.
Christie’s decision this week to ignore fervent pleas to reappoint the only African American on the New Jersey Supreme Court smacks of an unnecessary belligerence that puts political considerations above everything else. The governor cared not a whit that by all estimates, Justice John E. Wallace Jr., a former Gloucester County judge, has done a fine job since his appointment to the high court seven years ago. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner described Wallace as “an intellectually honest, wise, and independent thinker, a fair-minded jurist, a gifted, thoughtful writer, and a model of integrity and character.”
Christie didn’t care that Wallace wasn’t even on the court when it made the rulings that conservatives now cite as their rationale for wanting Christie to steer the court to a different direction. Those rulings included the Abbott decision mandating disproportionate state funding to poor schools, and the Mount Laurel ruling requiring every town to provide affordable housing. Wallace didn’t make those decisions, but so what? Christie had a chance to toss his conservative backers a bone, and he did it.
Wallace will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 in two years, but Christie couldn’t wait. The governor will get at least three more chances to put his stamp on the court as other terms expire in the next three years, but Wallace had to go now.
And who will replace him? In a blatant attempt to counter criticism of his removing the only black from the court, Christie chose a woman, Morris County lawyer Anne M. Patterson, a former deputy attorney general. Patterson’s credentials may satisfy anyone who thinks the court, with rulings like Abbott and Mount Laurel, has too frequently aligned itself with the downtrodden. She has had a successful career representing corporate interests in product liability cases.
Her appointment is no guarantee, however. It must be confirmed by the Senate, and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Judiciary Committee member Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), have indicated they won’t let that happen. Their anger, and the anger of African Americans who support Justice Wallace, is a reminder of how Christie also needlessly angered teachers by lumping the good and the bad in his worthy goal to cut education spending. He needs to be a leader whose vision sprouts unity, not division.