By David Rebovich – June 14, 2007
The word got out early to the press corps on Wednesday morning. Get to the Annual Luncheon of the 200 Club of Mercer County, a group dedicated to helping the families of public safety and rescue personnel killed in the line of duty, a great cause. But the news maker would be Christopher Christie, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, who was the event’s keynote speaker and would have something important to say. Christie planned to discuss the hold-up in the confirmation of Stuart Rabner, his former colleague and still close friend, as the next chief justice of the state court.
Normally a feisty and engaging speaker, on Wednesday Christie was clearly upset and angry. He had read a front page article in THE STAR LEDGER explaining how Rabner’s nomination as chief justice was being held up by Nia Gill of Essex County. Later Ron Rice, also of Essex County, said he too needed time before he would allow the Senate to proceed. Both were exercising senatorial courtesy, an age old practice, not a constitutional power, in New Jersey’s upper chamber.
Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle admit that senatorial courtesy is outdated and irrational, especially when invoked to stymie a governor’s nominations to cabinet level commissionerships, state agency heads, and to the state supreme court. By refusing to sign off a nomination, one state senator, perhaps from the minority party, could decide without cause that a qualified person who happens to live within that senator’s county not be reviewed by the entire senate or granted that body’s consent to serve in the governor’s administration or in the court system. This power is an enormous bargaining chip for a senator in dealing with the Governor and senate leaders, which is why the practice is still around. But it is a power than makes little sense, and one that can lead to abuse.
Christie did not specifically address the issue of senatorial courtesy in his speech to the 200 Club of Mercer County. But he did have a lot to say about what he thinks this incident says about politics in Trenton and the lack of leadership in state government. He was especially disturbed about how the very people who claim they support Rabner’s nomination – that of course means, Governor Jon Corzine who made it and Senate President Richard Codey who praised it – had no comment on how the likely next chief justice is being treated. Christie said, “When I read in THE STAR LEDGER that nobody was standing up for him, I turned to my wife and said, ‘I’m doing it today.'”
And that he did. But Christie did so in a way that connects Rabner’s plight with his own larger criticisms of politics and politicians in New Jersey. For those who have not heard Christie speak before, his broadside against the system and its leaders may have seemed like overkill. However, he did make the important point that politics as usual, exemplified by the self-serving behavior of elected and appointed officials, may have so discouraged New Jerseyans that they don’t even expect meaningful change. While the current administration has promised fiscal integrity, ethical integrity and permanent property tax reform, progress has been slow and sidetracked by political conflict and considerations, not what’s genuinely good for the state.
Now that same party is allowing one of its very finest – a person of superior character, intellect, and accomplishment in public service – to have his nomination put on hold because of some intra-party wrangling. Christie believes that such behavior fuels public cynicism about politics in New Jersey. He also thinks that it may prevent other people of integrity and quality from entering public service.
To make these points, Christie reviewed Rabner’s resume, touching on his stellar academic record, clerkship for a federal judge, his twenty years of increasing and diverse responsibilities and accomplishments in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Such a person, claimed Christie, could command a top salary at big law firms across the country but instead chose to dedicate himself to public service. It is hard not to agree with Christie’s assertion that “After reading his resume, people would say if we have a chance to keep this person in public service, we should jump on it.”
But instead what Rabner and New Jerseyans got was “….the latest example of the pettiness, cowardice, and dirt of Trenton.” Christie said that when he started reading THE STAR LEDGER article on Rabner, he thought, “…Surely someone will stand up and call it like it is.” Yet, there was nothing from the Governor’s Office. Senator John Adler, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, offered “..a third rate bureaucratic explanation” that there will be no hearing on Rabner because his paperwork is not filed. Only Senator Joseph Kyrillos, a Republican, praised the nominee.
What kind of response is Christie looking for? “Leadership needs to stand up” and speak the truth rather than make a political calculation about when they should stand up for a deserving nominee. In addition, Christie called on the people of the state to “…let the leadership in Trenton know that you’re appalled” and that you want the best people in government. This certainly seems to mean that Governor Corzine and Senate President Codey should deal directly with recalcitrant state senators who are holding up Rabner’s nomination.
When Christie was questioned about Corzine and Codey after his speech, he refused to back off. On Cozine, Christie said that the Governor may have his reasons for inaction, but “…it is an abomination not to defend the nomination.” Regarding the Senate President, Christie said that it’s up to Codey to decide what he wants to do but added, “I’m disappointed with anyone who didn’t stand up for Rabner.”
A key question in all this is whether Senators Gill and Rice are using senatorial courtesy in order to get something in return, e.g., promises of nominations for political allies or more appropriations for their districts. After all, with the Democrats having a slim 22-18 majority in the senate, two senators may be able to leverage their votes in favor of the new state budget or withhold passage of the state’s new spending plan to exact some favor from the Governor or legislative leaders.
While Senator Gill has not spoken to the media, associates told THE STAR LEDGER that she is concerned about Rabner’s lack of experience in civil law – something Christie disputes – and the Governor’s failure to consult with senators representing Essex County. Senator Rice, who has always been concerned about protocol, told the Associated Press that Corzine did need to consult with senators on such appointments. Rice also said, “There’s always a concern about diversity.”
Senator Rice’s and Gill’s concerns about the lack of consultation by the Governor and the need to address the issue of diversity in the state’s judiciary are certainly reasonable. So too is U.S. Attorney Christie’s call for better leadership from the Governor and the Senate President. That leadership, however, need not be public or confrontational unless Corzine and Codey feel that they are being manipulated by legislators for self-serving reasons. That does not seem to be the case here. But the front office could have done a better job laying the foundation for Rabner’s nomination before announcing it with great fanfare.
What then of Christie’s criticisms of how Rabner is being treated, the pettiness of politics in Trenton, and the lack of leadership in state government. Well, the highly accomplished Attorney General should not have to endure a delay in the confirmation process because of the failure of the Governor’s Office to communicate with concerned senators. Senatorial courtesy as a practice does seem to have outgrown its usefulness. But being courteous to senators and other interested persons, who have questions about any individual nomination or the Governor’s vision for the state’s highest court and his cabinet, and addressing their concerns as warranted must be standard operating procedure.
Yes, consulting with and learning from other lawmakers is a part of leadership. But so too is standing up to them when need be. Listening to Chris Christie lament how his friend was hanging in the wind because of the failure of Trenton’s leaders to fight the good fight, it was easy to conclude the following. The U.S. Attorney was not simply talking about Rabner’s situation but how the Governor and key legislators may have compromised away long-term fiscal integrity, real property tax reform, and ethical integrity, especially an immediate ban on dual office-holding for everyone, in the name of consultation. Like Rabner’s nomination, achieving these worthy goals may require some confrontation.
David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics.” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIOGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.