Conservative critics are welcoming New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to the early caucus state of Iowa Thursday by attacking his record of signing off on “liberal” justices to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
The attack foreshadows a potential problem for Mr. Christie if he dives into the 2016 GOP presidential nomination contest, given that he — unlike his potential gubernatorial rivals — plays a bigger role in judicial selections in his home state.
“It is definitely something that is going to be dissected if he is going to run for president,” said Bob L. Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, a social conservative group with influence in Iowa, which is the first stop on the nomination calendar. “The New Jersey system is much like the federal system, where Christie gets to nominate judges, and the Senate must confirm them. So there is a direct linkage between his governance in New Jersey and appointment of judges. People can draw direct link between that and what he would do as president.”
The other current or former GOP governors flirting with presidential bids lead states where the Supreme Court judges are elected or picked through merit selection, according to a state-by-state breakdown from the American Judicature Society.
The Judicial Crisis Network rolled out an online campaign warning voters that Mr. Christie has cut deals with Democrats on judicial appointments as the New Jersey governor touches down for a three-city fundraising swing through Iowa. Mr. Christie will attend events in his role as chair of the Republican Governors Association. He also plans to travel later this month to New Hampshire, which plays host to the first-in-the-nation primary.
Mr. Christie entered office promising to change the makeup of the state Supreme Court, saying that it is too “activist,” and he went on to spark a political firestorm in 2010 by refusing to renominate Associate Justice John Wallace, Jr., a Democrat. Since then, Democrats have blocked a number of Mr. Christie’s nominees to the state's high court.
That changed in May when the two sides struck a deal under which Democrats would confirm Lee Solomon, a Republican, in exchange for Mr. Christie nominating Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, a Democrat, for tenure — meaning that he can serve until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 2030.
The bipartisan deal drew the ire of conservative groups, who said it was an example of how Mr. Christie is too willing to wave the white flag in ideological battles.
Mr. Rabner angered conservatives in 2013 when he wrote the opinion that legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey and refused to put a stay on the ruling. Mr. Rabner also blocked Mr. Christie’s push to abolish an affordable-housing agency.
The Judicial Crisis Network is putting $75,000 into two digital ads — one 15 seconds long and one 90 seconds long — that say Mr. Christie has missed five opportunities to follow through on his campaign promise of remaking the court.
“The court remains liberal,” the narrator says in the ad, which criticizes Mr. Christie’s decision to sign off on the renomination of Mr. Rabner, saying the Democrat is “so liberal that he was mentioned as a potential Barack Obama nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
“Christie even endorsed Obama’s liberal Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomoyar [nomination] to the Supreme Court,” the narrator says. “Important issues like Obamacare are at stake in our courts. The next president of the United States may get to appoint as many as three U.S. Supreme Court nominees — a new majority.”
The Christie administration countered that Mr. Christie has nominated multiple conservatives to the Supreme Court that were blocked by Senate Democrats but that he still has been able to put three new faces on the court since taking office.
JCN, though, says that Mr. Christie’s picks — including some blocked by the Democratic legislature — have supported same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director for JCN, said that the ad aims to draw attention to the issue now, and she hopes it will take center stage during the 2016 GOP primary race.
“Whatever your issue is — whether it is abortion, marriage, guns, property rights — all of them eventually boil down to the courts,” she said.
“It turns out sometimes power comes with liability, and for Christie, his judicial power packs another kind of set of political land mines for him,” Mr. Jacobs said, adding that social conservatives already distrust Mr. Christie. “He is going to be blamed for what he [wasn’t] able to accomplish rather than celebrated for what he tried to accomplish.”
But David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, downplayed the significance, saying that it might not turn out to be as big a political liability as people might think.
“This is going to all be part of an effort by his challengers to cut him up, to portray him as ‘too liberal’ or ‘too establishment,’ Mr. Yepsen said. “Christie may well turn it into an asset, because if all the conservatives in the race are carving up each other, he would do well with a plurality of the so-called ‘establishment Republicans.’”