New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) blamed state Senate Democrats on Monday for his decision not to renominate state Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens, saying he believed they would have prevented her nomination from going forward.
Under the New Jersey constitution, all state judges serve an initial seven-year term and can be reappointed for a second term lasting until their 70th birthday, which for Hoens will come in 2024. State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) told the Newark Star-Ledger in July that Hoens should be denied a second term because Christie did not renominate Justice John Wallace, a Democrat and the court's only African-American member, in 2010.
"There has to be a price paid for what he did," said Lesniak, a powerful member of the Judiciary Committee. "This guy plays hardball. I’m sorry. The only way to play against someone who plays hardball is to play hardball right back."
Christie cited Lesniak's comments at a Monday press conference, during which he announced that he would instead nominate Camden County Superior Court Assignment Judge Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina to the Supreme Court.
"I told [Hoens] that I was sorry that because of the conduct of people like Ray Lesniak and others, that she was not going to be able to serve if she so chose until her retirement age at 70," Christie said.
Lesniak told PolitickerNJ.com that he was not responsible for the decision and Christie was giving him "way too much credit."
He added that while it was "presumptuous" to assume Democrats would have blocked Hoens' nomination, she would have had difficulty being reconfirmed. “There’s no doubt she was going to have difficulty because her opinions on the bench showed absolutely no independence from the governor’s views," Lesniak said.
The move is the latest in an ongoing dispute between Christie and Senate Democrats over control of the Supreme Court that has left two seats on the bench vacant. Christie has said that he wants to reshape the Court, which Republicans have criticized for decisions on school funding and affordable housing.
Christie's two other Supreme Court picks, Robert Hanna and Judge David Bauman, have not received confirmation hearings despite being nominated in December.
New Jersey tradition has dictated that no more than four justices belong to one party, and Democrats have argued that Christie's appointees would create a 5-2 Republican majority. Christie has said that there would only be four Republicans on the bench, since sitting Justice Jaynee LaVecchia has no political affiliations, but Democrats have pointed out that she served in a Republican cabinet and has donated to Republican politicians.
The state Senate has already rejected two of Christie's Supreme Court picks, including Chatham Mayor Bruce Harris, the nation's first gay black Republican mayor. Christie's first nominee, Justice Anne Patterson, was confirmed after waiting more than a year.