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Why Chris Christie nominated a Democrat as his state’s chief justice

Spencer Platt, Getty Images News
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Last week, Chris Christie announced who he was going to nominate as chief justice of New Jersey's Supreme Court — the current chief justice, Democrat Stuart Rabner. After years of fighting between Christie and the state's Democrats over court seats, Rabner's renomination is an olive branch from the governor. But in placating local liberals, Christie has angered national conservatives — and this could return to dog him in a future presidential primary. "If he's president then we can expect a Christie Court to look no different from an Obama Court," conservative activist Brent Bozell said in a statement.

The battle over court seats has been so contentious because New Jersey has an unusual two-tiered confirmation system. Once a justice is first appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate, he or she serves an initial term of 7 years. After that, the governor has the power to choose whether to renominate the justice. If the justice is renominated and confirmed, he or she will get tenure and be allowed to serve until turning 70, when mandatory retirement kicks in.

Traditionally, the renomination of a justice after the initial 7 years was considered pro forma — even if the justice and the governor had different ideological views. "The idea is that a justice should feel free to decide cases on the merits, without fear of losing his or her seat on the bench as a result," the Star-Ledger editorial board wrote. But Christie changed that — he refused to renominate Justice John Wallace, a Democrat, in 2010. Christie called the court liberal and "out of control," and said "the only way to change the court is to change its members." Yet the state's Democrats fought back, and made it clear they wouldn't reconfirm several Republican justices if Christie didn't change course.

All the while, the clock was ticking on Chief Justice Rabner's term, which was set to end in June 2014. Rabner is widely respected in both parties and among the state's legal community. Indeed, Rabner worked in the US Attorney's office for many years, including 4 years of heading the Criminal Division under US Attorney Chris Christie, before being appointed to Governor Jon Corzine's administration. But he is a Democrat, and he angered conservatives by refusing to halt same-sex weddings in the state, and blocking Christie's attempt to shut down an affordable housing agency. And since Rabner is only 53 years old, if he's renominated now, he could be chief justice until he turns 70 in the year 2030. As a result, many observers feared that Christie was gearing up to substitute his own chief justice nominee for Rabner, as a way to appeal to conservatives. Indeed, Christie said at a town hall that he'd "have another opportunity coming up in June" to change the court.

But, weakened by Bridgegate and recent bad fiscal news, Christie backed away from the fight. He made a deal to renominate Rabner, in return for Democratic approval of a new Republican nominee, Lee Solomon. Though Christie sometimes disagreed with Rabner, he said, "Never have I thought he brought any bias or partisanship to the execution of his duties as chief justice."

The reaction from national conservative activists, as reported by Eliana Johnson of National Review, has been very negative. Brent Bozell said Christie flipped "his middle finger at conservatives," and Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network told Johnson that Christie "is showing Republicans that the priority he places on the judiciary is very low." Christie defended his decision by saying, "The fact is that when you compromise you don't get everything you want." The problem Christie faces, though, is convincing conservative activists that he actually wants the same things they do.