New Jersey’s (Politically) Supreme Court

Today Governor Christie announced that he will attempt to change the school funding formula in next year’s budget.  In most states, this would be a relatively simple proposition.  The Governor proposes changes, and the legislature enacts them.  In New Jersey, though, the situation has been (hopelessly) complicated by our Supreme Court.  In a series of “Abbott” decisions, the court actually mandated school funding formulas, holding that an efficient and fair education was an inalienable  “constitutional right.”  As a result, the court has the final say when it comes to aid, and they have ordered that 60% of state education aid to flow to 31 school districts of its choice.

When asked at a town hall how he would accomplish his funding goals,

Christie went on to say that his fight with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to change the make up of the state Supreme Court is also part of his effort to change the way schools are funded. “I’m trying to change the bench,” Christie said when asked again what he could do to fix schools.

Many legal scholars and Democrats have criticized Christie for allegedly “politicizing” the Supreme Court.  The New York Times even decided to acknowledge the existence of NJ on the other side of the Hudson and pen an editorial on the subject.  They call upon the Governor to “respect the state’s tradition — one that has worked very well.”  Similarly, the Star-Ledger quotes numerous legal experts, one of whom bombastically states that “Gov. Christie, in his decision not to reappoint Justice Wallace, has politicized the court more so than it ever has in its history.”

All of these “experts” have completely missed the point when it comes to the court.  The fact of the matter is that the Supreme Court has chosen to engaged itself in political questions and decisions in a whole variety of areas.  This is the same court that forced the creation of the state income tax, mandated “fair” housing laws, all of which has culminated in its dangerous status as the most powerful branch of state government.  The Founding Fathers addressed this very issue, and in Federalist No. 78, warned against judicial activism,

“The courts must declare the sense of the law; and if they should be disposed to exercise WILL instead of JUDGMENT, the consequence would equally be the substitution of their pleasure to that of the legislative body.”

Our Supreme Court has completely disregarded this maxim, and forced the legislative branch to follow the lead of unelected, out of touch justices.  Since their 1985 Abbott decision, New Jersey’s urban school districts have decayed, not improved.  The Legislature is powerless to change the situation because the funding scheme is mandated by an unelected supreme court.  In recent Abbott hearings, the court seemed to ignore the argument that the state faces a bleak economy and a financial crisis.

It was not Governor Christie that “destroyed” the independence of the court, but in fact, the justices themselves.  When a court engages in political behavior, it rightfully subjects itself to political criticism and political action.  The Governor’s quest to put justices on the court who will respect the will of the people and say what the law is, not what it should be, is a noble project that should be supported by both parties.  New Jersey’s citizens and their elected representative should be free to fix problems facing the state democratically and effectively.  Judicial fiat has never solved public policy issues and the sooner the New Jersey Supreme Court recognizes that, the sooner it will regain its legitimacy.

The Governor is wise to replace its membership, but this is only a long-term solution.  In the short term, the court should finally take stock of how its decisions have devastated both its own reputation and New Jersey’s economy.  Perhaps the best option, though, is to amend the state constitution to more closely control the power of the court, and to override some of its decisions; namely those that keep New Jersey’s taxes high and compulsive spenders happy.