From Senator to NJ Supreme Court Chief Justice in Four Months or Less

Newly minted U.S. Senator for the state of New Jersey Jeff Chiesa on Monday joined Sen. Bob Menendez (D) and enough Republicans to reauthorize the agriculture program. He joined some Republicans (but not Sen. Menendez) in opposing a pilot program for internet projects in rural areas. On Tuesday, he joined Sen. Menendez and many Republicans to vote against invoking cloture on the comprehensive immigration bill. He then voted again with Senator Menendez and many Republicans to proceed to the immigration bill. In all cases, he was within a Republican comfort zone. A key question is how he will vote on a final immigration package. It seems unlikely he will deviate substantially from positions favored by the Governor and Republicans in general.

When he leaves the Senate this fall — when a special election to replace the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg will end his four-month run after being appointed by Gov. Chris Christie — Chiesa has many options, including returning to the administration. He could also join a law practice bringing with him his high-power connections and experience in government. An intriguing possibility — if Chiesa is interested — is that Gov. Christie might nominate him to the N.J. Supreme Court. With his level of experience, gravitas, record and respect, a Democratic Senate would have a hard time denying him the position. An even more more intriguing possibility is that the Governor might soon nominate Chiesa to be Chief Justice.

Under New Jersey's revised 1947 Constitution, new state Supreme Court Justices initially serve a seven-year term and then can be reappointed and attain tenure. (There is also a mandatory retirement age at 70.) Stuart Rabner is the current Chief Justice, appointed by Governor Jon Corzine in 2007. His term expires on June 29, 2014. Until 2010, every Justice appointed under this system had been subsequently granted life tenure. Nonetheless, in 2010, the Governor declined to re-appoint Supreme Court Justice John Wallace. The Governor did not assert any lack of "good behavior." Rather, he claimed it was his prerogative to re-appoint, and he said he wished to have someone else more in tune with his philosophy.

The state senate, led by President Steve Sweeney, was so offended by the Governor's blatant politics and disrespect toward an accomplished jurist that it refused to hold a hearing on the Governor's intended replacement until Justice Wallace's normal retirement in March 2012.

Following the dubious precedent the Governor set with Justice Wallace, he could choose to deny Chief Justice Rabner tenure and nominate current Senator Chiesa as Chief Justice on or after June 30, 2014. A Democratic senate would once again be infuriated. However, the Supreme Court is short two Justices now, and the Governor's replacement nominees include one Republican and one avowed Independent — who nonetheless was recently appointed to another position by the Governor.

With Christie as governor, a Republican Senate would be a portal to assure a Republican Supreme Court and one possibly led by a Republican Chief Justice. What a difference an election can make.

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