By Paul Mulshine at NJ.com
Maybe this is another joke, like that dance he did with Jimmy Fallon.
I’m talking about Chris Christie’s nomination of Lee Solomon to the state Supreme Court.
That nomination will be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday afternoon. But on Monday morning I heard something from a key Republican senator on that committee that calls the governor’s entire judicial strategy into question.
It seems that as a legislator Solomon endorsed the very approach to school-funding that the governor has spent the last six years claiming to oppose.
When it comes to judicial appointments, the governor has stated over and over again that he wants to appoint a court majority that will end the court’s tradition of activism in such key areas as the Abbott school-funding cases and the Mount Laurel zoning cases.
To that end, Christie decided last year not to renominate Associate Justice Helen Hoens. Hoens, a Republican, is being replaced by another Republican, Superior Court Judge Lee Solomon of Camden County.
Christie’s failure to reappoint Hoens was a mystery to most observers. She was one of only two judges on the seven-member court who supported Christie in the most recent Abbott school-funding case, in 2013.
In that case, the court ordered Christie to restore $500 million in funding to the 31 Abbott school districts after he made across-the-board cuts to all districts to balance the budget he inherited from Jon Corzine.
Christie had little choice but to make those cuts. And even after they were made the 31 Abbott districts were still receiving more aid than the remaining 550 districts combined. Yet only Hoens and Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto supported Christie on the move. Rivera-Soto later left the court after his first seven-year term.
We know how those two felt about judicial activism. But how does Lee Solomon feel?
He will almost certainly dodge the question when he’s asked about it at the hearing. But state Sen. Mike Doherty has come up with a piece of evidence that indicates Solomon was an early proponent of a crucial aspect of the Abbott approach.
In a 1998 Abbott ruling, the Supreme Court combined with the Whitman administration to do a tag-team. The administration offered to have the state pick up 100 percent of the cost of free preschool in the 21 districts. The court took them up on the offer to order education for 3- and 4-year-olds – even though the state constitution requires schooling only for those “between the ages of 5 and 18.
Where did the Whitman people get that crazy idea?
From Lee Solomon, it seems. Doherty dug into the legislative archives and found a bill Solomon sponsored when he was an assemblyman in 1993. The bill calls for mandatory preschool in the 31 Abbott school districts.
Does that mean Solomon supports the Abbott decisions? We’ll likely never know until he’s seated on the court. But this is very similar to his view on abortion. As I wrote, back when he was assemblyman, Solomon was endorsed by a pro-choice groupbecause of his views on abortion. This goes counter to Christie’s many pledges as a candidate that he is a self-described “pro-lifer”
How will we know whether Solomon’s views have changed on these key questions? We won’t This sort of thing is like musical chairs. The nominee will likely dodge any questions on his current views so we’re stuck trying to deduce his positions from his views back when the music – or at least the news reports – stopped.
And back then, Solomon was anything but the conservative Christie claims he now is.
By contrast, the views of Hoens were a known quantity, said Doherty, who has been leading a campaign to get suburban schools an equal share of state funding.
“Maybe her fatal flaw was actually writing an opinion suburban taxpayers have been waiting on forever,” Doherty said. “That’s the stuff Christie has been saying on the campaign trail and in town hall meetings, and he took her off the court and replaced her with someone who supports mandated preschool.”
Normally you might say that a judicial nominee should not be judged based on bills he sponsored as a legislator. But this isn’t normal. In this case, the exact approach Solomon sponsored as a legislator was soon incorporated into a compromise that permitted the court to issue a mandate that was clearly unconstitutional on its face.
Solomon’s got a lot of explaining to do. I doubt if we’ll hear it before his nomination goes to the full Senate, however, or even before he is affirmed by that august but decidedly uncurious body.
And then there’s the fact that Solomon is considered the more conservative of Christie’s nominees. For reasons known only to himself, Christie also renominated Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to life tenure on the court. Rabner, like that unbalanced budget, was also inherited from Corzine and is considered a solid liberal. But Christie renominated him anyway and he will also appear before the committee today.
So it appears we are on the verge of seeing the court moved solidly to the left by a man who has spent the last six years promising to move it to the right.
If this is how a Governor Christie handles appointments to the state Supreme Court, imagine how a President Christie would handle appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court.
For that, you’re really going to have to use your imagination. Unless Christie displays fancier footwork than he did on the Jimmy Fallon show, he’s never going to dance around his conservative opposition for that 2016 presidential nomination.
ALSO: Watch the video below produced by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education about the Duke lacrosse scandal. As I noted in the column I linked to above, Solomon once sponsored a bill to criminalize the publication of those who make accusations of rape. If he’d had his way, anyone who ran the name of the woman who falsely accused these students of rape could be imprisoned.