Christie's 'judge problem' will be a lingering concern among conservatives if he runs for president

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Before Chris Christie embarked on a tour of Iowa this week in a trip that renewed speculation about his presidential ambitions, the conservative advocacy group Judicial Crisis Network released a set of web videos accusing Christie of failing to do as much as he should have to appoint conservative judges to the state Supreme Court during his years as New Jersey’s Republican governor.

It might seem like a small thing — the spots never aired on television — but the videos’ message highlights what’s emerging as a new sticking point for social conservatives who are looking for fodder to use against a man they see as too liberal to be such a prominent face of the GOP.

Christie’s tenure as governor has been marked by a multiyear battle with New Jersey’s Democratic legislature over judicial nominees, and because of that, he has appointed Democrats to the bench. In March, Christie agreed to renominate Stuart Rabner, a Democrat, as chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court in exchange for the elevation of one of his choice nominees, Republican Superior Court Judge Lee Solomon, to the highest court in the state. Conservatives were furious with Christie for striking the deal, especially because Rabner penned the opinion in an Oct. 2013 case that paved the way for legal same-sex marriage in New Jersey. Christie then went on to further agitate social conservatives when his administration declined to appeal the ruling.

The Judicial Crisis Network videos, which were backed by a $75,000 digital ad buy in Iowa, amplify ongoing criticism from the right that Christie has not fought hard enough to secure spots on the bench for conservative judges.

“New Jersey’s Supreme Court has been one of the most activist courts in the nation,” a narrator says in one of the JCN videos, which was posted on a website the group created, “The court’s liberal rulings have wreaked havoc on state finances, driven away business and jeopardized jobs. … Over and over, Gov. Chris Christie promised he would fix it — remake the court with judges who respect the rule of law. Over and over, he broke his promise.”

This anti-Christie push, while mounted by a relatively unknown advocacy group, is just a taste of what the governor could face should he announce a run for the White House, conservative activists warn. And Christie’s record in New Jersey could prove to be an especially severe liability for him in Iowa  the first state to hold presidential caucuses  where social conservative activists still have fresh memories of battles with their state’s own judiciary.

In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court sent down a unanimous ruling that made same-sex marriage legal in the state, a decision that ignited a firestorm among social conservatives there. They responded by launching a campaign that led to the ousting of three judges from the bench.

Conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, who led the successful campaign against the Iowa judges, predicts that Christie’s actions relating to judicial nominees will spell trouble for him in the future.

“It will definitely be a big issue if he wants to move forward to run for president,” Vander Plaats, who heads an Iowa religious conservative group called the Family Leader, told Yahoo News. “Any presidential candidate will have that area of their experience fully dissected, and they’re going to be questioned about this. If Christie’s going to run for president, he’s going to have to address that issue.”

Although no Republican candidates have officially announced a formal intention to seek the White House, many of the possible contenders, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, have made a point of speaking out against what they consider judicial overreach.

Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses during his first run for president in 2012 and is considering another run in 2016, did not mince words when asked about Christie’s record on judicial appointments.

“To see a record as abysmal as Gov. Christie’s record in the state of New Jersey, I guarantee you that will be a red flag for most voters in the state of Iowa, but also most voters in the Republican primary,” Santorum said, speaking of his possible future rival in an interview with Yahoo News.

In a statement, a Christie spokesman pointed to the Democratic majority in the state senate as the reason the governor has had trouble appointing all of his ideal candidates. Of the state Supreme Court nominees he has proposed to the legislature, the Democratic-majority judiciary committee has approved just three.

“Gov. Christie has nominated multiple conservatives to the Supreme Court, but several have been blocked by the Democrat state senate,” said Mike DuHaime, a Christie adviser. “Gov. Christie got three new Republicans on the Supreme Court, without any help from this group, successfully making it a more conservative court than the one he inherited,” he added.

That explanation won’t hold up in the long term, Santorum said.

“So if we have a Republican president and a Democratic Senate, then we’re going to get the same kind of nominees? I don’t think that flies,” Santorum said. “You fight. That’s where you’re there to do. You fight to get people who are good judges who will decide cases, not legislate from the bench.”

Santorum added: “He failed to do that, and it’s a serious problem.”