NEW BRUNSWICK - The independence of New Jersey judges is under attack by Gov. Chris Christie and lawmakers, retired judges and lawyers told a state bar association task force Tuesday.
Speakers said the process of judicial appointments and lifetime tenure should be changed and judges should get regular pay raises and no longer be forced to retire when they turn 70.
"I was so proud to be the chief justice in this court system that was looked at as one of the finest if not the finest in this country," said Deborah Poritz, who was chief justice of the state Supreme Court from 1996 to 2006. "I had no sense of how easy it could be to lose that, how quickly we could lose that."
Poritz was one of many speakers who cited "The Federalist Papers," used to pass the U.S. Constitution, in arguing for an independent judiciary.
New Jersey judges, particularly state Supreme Court justices, have long been criticized by conservatives for a string of landmark rulings dating to the 1970s that forced the state's municipalities to make zoning laws that made it illegal to keep out poor people, forced state taxpayers to put more money into schools in impoverished cities and allowed civil unions and then marriage for gay couples. Critics say those were decisions that should not be made by a small number of judges.
When he first ran in 2009, Christie made what he called "judicial activism" a campaign issue and vowed to reshape the state's top court.
A governor can not only nominate judges to the bench but can also deny reappointment and lifetime tenure after they have served seven years. But since the constitution was revamped in 1947, no Supreme Court justice had been ousted until Christie became governor.
The Republican governor has removed two judges. Christie disagreed with John Wallace's rulings and removed him from the bench. Christie said the second, Helen Hoens, was removed to shield her from a Senate debate over her judicial fate. But without Senate debate, Hoens could not be reappointed.
Meanwhile, the Democrat-controlled state Senate has blocked and delayed several of Christie's judicial nominations, including to the Supreme Court.
Nearly all the speakers Tuesday called for preserving or expanding judicial independence. Several of their ideas could be put in place only through a constitutional amendment, which would require persuading lawmakers and voters of their positions.
Several speakers focused on the reappointment process, saying either lifetime tenure should be granted Supreme Court justices when they are first confirmed or reappointment should be presumed. Some called for making reappointment decisions sooner than seven years. Others called for using specific criteria to determine whether judges should be reappointed.
"Trial court judges who don't have tenure are fearful of taking on cases of controversy and political consequence," said lawyer Gerald Salerno.
The one speaker who called for accountability rather than more independence told the task force that many people have had bad experiences with New Jersey judges and would be reluctant to vote to give them more independence.