In 2002, when Chris Christie became head of the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey, a quiet, scholarly lawyer named Stuart Rabner was his No. 2, the first assistant U.S. attorney.

Christie liked Rabner so much that he put him in charge of the office's new terrorism unit (remember, this was 2002, a critical time in the fight against terrorism) and later made him head of the criminal division.

In 2007, when former Gov. Jon S. Corzine nominated Rabner to be chief justice of the state Supreme Court and a state senator tried to hold up the nomination, Christie jumped to Rabner's defense, calling him "a fabulous choice" and criticizing the holdup as "typical rotten politics in Trenton."

And now?

Well, the governor - who has already broken sensible long-standing precedent by refusing to renominate two respected justices - is apparently considering not reappointing Rabner when his initial seven-year term expires in June.

"We have another opportunity coming up in June, where I have to decide whether or not to reappoint the chief justice," Christie said at a recent town-hall meeting.

But if Christie decides not to reappoint Rabner - by all accounts a highly respected, ethical centrist committed to fairness and justice - it would be a sad day for New Jersey.

Christie, of course, is entitled to appoint, or not reappoint, whomever he wants. He is entitled to do it for purely political reasons, if he wants. And he has spoken quite openly about making what he calls the "activist" state Supreme Court more conservative.

So, yes, Christie has the right. But what a mistake it would be to send packing such a respected, intelligent public servant. Rabner is no flaming liberal ideologue - he was a top federal prosecutor, for goodness sake. Rather, he is an independent, careful, principled jurist dedicated to the law.

Christie knows that. He has said as much. And he should also know that those qualities are far more important than whether a judge is a Democrat or a Republican, or whether he leans left or right in his personal political beliefs.

We don't fully buy the argument that Christie's decisions on Supreme Court nominees are some kind of unprecedented attack on judicial independence. Governors (and presidents) always have an eye on politics when they make these decisions.

But not reappointing someone of Rabner's caliber does undermine the credibility of the courts. We expect these men and women to be worthy of the robes they wear and of the power they hold. And by any definition, Rabner is worthy of that respect and worthy of reappointment.

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