New Jersey’s battering ram
Chris Christie rode to national prominence when he publicly excoriated a New Jersey teacher and other citizens over differences in opinion in town hall meetings. In contrast to the plain vanilla politispeak of most public officials, his blunt, confrontational style of governing was seen as a breath of fresh air. Christie either has a naturally combative governing style or believes that choosing a new target will get the national spotlight back on him. Or maybe he just wants to create a legacy as New Jersey’s most powerful battering ram.
Christie’s latest target is New Jersey state judges. Since no federal law other than IRS statutes has jurisdiction over public pensions, state judges are the chief interpreters of what is owed to public-sector retirees. A New Jersey judge recently overturned a pension reform that Christie spearheaded and that the state legislature passed in the spring. This new law would have required state judges to increase their pension payments from 3 percent of their salary to 12 percent over seven years and make a much bigger contribution to towards their health care costs.
Now, New Jersey’s constitution prohibits the governor or the legislature from reducing the salaries of state judges. The framers included this provision to insulate the judiciary from the types of political attacks that Christie is making on them.
It’s important to note that there are sound legal disagreements about the judge’s ruling and the attorney general has filed an appeal to the state supreme court. That said, Christie’s response to the court ruling was confrontational and condescending:
The governor, instead, turned venomous. He attacked [the judge]’s integrity and accused her of “protecting her own pocketbook and those of her colleagues.” He called her the reason “why the public has grown to have such little faith in the objectivity of the judiciary.”
Later, after you’d think he had a chance to calm down, he went at her again: “Judge Feinberg made a decision that is, on its face, self-interested and outrageous,” Christie said. “This is a blatant attempt to exact for themselves special treatment because they have the power to do so.”
The head of the state bar association and many others in the legal profession in New Jersey have berated him for his attacks. From the Star Ledger Statehouse Bureau staff (emphasis mine):
Frank Askin, a law professor and director of the constitutional litigation clinic at Rutgers Law School in Newark, said Christie’s bashing of Feinberg wasn’t a good move.
“It’s probably not good form to be denouncing a judge for her decision,” Askin said. ” We have an appellate process. He’s a bit of a bully at times. He occasionally lapses into inappropriate tirades against those he disagrees with.“
This is not the first time that New Jersey has seen Christie attack the judiciary. NorthJersey.com columnist Charles Stile recently wrote a piece entitled “Christie uses smear to put heat on judges” (emphasis mine):
Tuesday’s performance reflected a dual Christie, the sharp, aggressive lawyer who knows how to defend his point of view on the merits, and the angry, off-the-rails demagogue, chafing at the limits of his power.
He’s had little luck so far in trying to bend the court to his political will. His unprecedented dumping of Associate Justice John Wallace was effectively a “get-with-the-Christie-program-or-get-out” memo to the untenured and led to an unnecessary, yearlong standoff.
He browbeat Justice Barry Albin during oral arguments over the school funding case, and warned that he might ignore the court’s final decision if it did not rule in his favor. None of it worked.
There is actually very little money at stake in the fight that Christie is waging against the 432 judges of state. My rough figuring sets the annual monies in dispute at about $6.5 million per year. This represents the additional contributions that judges would make into their pension funds. Since it’s such a small sum of money I have to think that the governor is simply grandstanding.
In response to the judge’s ruling against him, Christie has rallied his Republican troops to put a constitutional amendment about the matter on the ballot in November 2012. Democrats wisely prefer to let the issue first wind it’s way through the courts. Since the Democratically-controlled legislature has to approve constitutional amendments before the electorate votes on them, Christie has to convince the opposition it’s a good use of public resources. So far, he’s garnered no support for that.
Bullying judges over their pension contributions does nothing to fix New Jersey’s longstanding problems with poor and broken inner city communities or failing schools. The solution needs to come from persuasiveness and creative governance. Battering rams are not needed.