- Associated Press - Monday, June 16, 2014

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - The chief justice of New Jersey’s top court said Monday it will be “a healthy moment” for the judiciary if the Republican governor and Democrat-led state Senate can agree on fully staffing the state Supreme Court.

The re-nomination of Chief Justice Stuart Rabner advanced Monday after a deal brokered by the offices of Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, which broke a logjam over high court nominees. The Senate Judiciary Committee easily cleared Rabner, the Democrat’s choice, and Christie’s pick, Superior Court Judge Lee Solomon.

Rabner was initially nominated by former Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, so there was much speculation over whether, Christie, a Republican eying a 2016 run for president, would allow the 53-year-old chief justice to continue leading a court the governor has criticized.

If both are confirmed by the full Senate as expected, Rabner will be eligible to serve until reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70. Solomon, 59, is being nominated for an initial 7-year term on the high court.

The court would gain a Republican member with the addition of Solomon, shifting the partisan balance to three Republicans, two Democrats and one independent. The remaining vacancy on the seven-member court is being filled temporarily by the most senior Appellate Court judge.

“It’s a significantly better court than when I got here,” Christie said Monday night on his monthly radio call-in program.

Asked during a four-hour hearing whether a long standoff over judicial nominations was adversely affecting the serving of justice, Rabner said it would be “a healthy moment” to have a full complement of jurists who have been nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. “That’s what the constitution had in mind, and I look forward to that process,” he said.

However, he rejected the idea that the court was being compromised because of the addition of substitute justices. The most senior appellate judges often have more judicial experience than a new associate justice, but they are often close to retirement. So far, four justices have been called up to sit on the Supreme Court since the stalemate between Christie and the Democrats began.

Christie and the Democrats have feuded over judicial appointments since 2009, when candidate Christie vowed to remake a Supreme Court he saw as too activist. The governor has been particularly critical of high court rulings on school funding and affordable housing that have gone against his positions.

In 2010, he declined to re-nominate the court’s only African-American justice, infuriating Democrats, who, in turn, refused to consider his nominee for a year.

That nominee, corporate lawyer Anne Patterson, was confirmed in 2011. However, Democrats beat back two other Christie picks and stalled action on two others before confirming Republican Superior Court Judge Faustino Fernandez-Vina in January. Like Fernandez-Vina, Solomon, a former state legislator and county prosecutor who later worked under Christie at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and as his pick to be president of the Board of Public Utilities, lives in Camden County.

Solomon said his past positions working for Christie would not cloud his judgment if he is confirmed to the court.

Only one committee member voted against Solomon’s nomination: Michael Doherty, who said his primary concern was that as a lawmaker, Solomon pushed to require the state to provide preschools for low-income school districts, a move he said violates the state constitution. Doherty also voted against Rabner, who he said was part of a broken judicial system.

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