Sweeney: No hearing for Christie's court nominee

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New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Tuesday that Democrats would not hold a hearing for Gov. Christie's pick to fill a vacancy on the New Jersey Supreme Court, arguing that confirming the governor's nominee would break precedent by driving the court too far to the right.

"The only way I will consider a Christie nominee is if the governor preserves judicial independence by submitting a Democrat for the court," Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said in a statement a day after Christie nominated Judge David Bauman of Monmouth County.

"For the past six years, I've fought to protect the long-standing tradition of keeping political balance on New Jersey's Supreme Court, and I will continue that fight," Sweeney said. "This nomination would contradict the intent of the framers of the Constitution by leaving only two Democrats on the seven-member court."

Bauman, 59, is assigned to the criminal division in Monmouth County and, Christie noted Monday, was unanimously confirmed last year by the Senate for tenure as a Superior Court judge.

Bauman was first nominated in 2008 by Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat.

If Bauman were confirmed, the Supreme Court would include four Republicans, two Democrats, and one unaffiliated justice. This would preserve "the tradition of partisan balance" on the court, the governor said Monday.

On Tuesday, his office noted that the composition of the court in 2002 was a mirror image of the one Christie envisions: four Democrats, two Republicans, and the same unaffiliated justice.

However, Democrats argue that Justice Jaynee LaVecchia is actually a Republican. She was appointed by Republican Gov. Christie Todd Whitman and served in two Republican administrations.

Thus, they say, Bauman's confirmation would tilt the court to a 5-2 Republican majority, breaking an unwritten agreement dating to the 1947 constitutional convention that the court would consist of no more than four members of the governor's party.

LaVecchia declined to comment, a spokeswoman said.

"Sen. Sweeney obviously can't read voter registration information," Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said. "It is irresponsible to mislead the people of New Jersey. Justice LaVecchia is a registered independent and always has been."

The Senate previously declined to consider Christie's nomination of Bauman in 2012. Bauman would replace Judge Mary Catherine Cuff, who has been temporarily assigned to the court since October 2012.

The composition of the court has been the subject of heated debate since Christie in 2010 declined to renominate Justice John E. Wallace Jr. for tenure. For a time thereafter, Sweeney refused to consider Christie's nominees.

Sweeney said that while he was seeking to fight for the "needs and priorities of New Jersey's low-income and middle-class families," Christie "has chosen to focus on his personal ambitions by engaging in political games in a misguided attempt to build up his new allegiance with Donald Trump."

Christie, who dropped out of the GOP presidential race after a poor performance in New Hampshire's primary last month, endorsed Trump, the controversial New York billionaire, on Friday.

"For six years, the Senate president has blocked the confirmation process on this seat," Roberts said in a statement Tuesday. "Given the Senate's unanimous support for Judge Bauman less than a year ago (including the Senate president's own affirmative vote), to do anything less than a swift confirmation is nothing more than bald, obstructionist politics."