Sunday, April 24, 2011

Setting a Bad Example

The old maxim goes, “Nothing is ever a total loss. It can always be used as a bad example.” And nothing fits that saying better than the recent absurd utterance of Governor Chris Christie.

When questioned by a radio host on a right-wing outlet as to whether the governor had considered disobeying a potential ruling by the state’s Supreme Court, Christie responded, “Have I thought of that? Of course I have.”

We know that Governor Christie does not respect the American concept of separation of powers, especially when it comes to the court. His unprecedented politically-motivated firing of Supreme Court Justice John Wallace last year demonstrated that fact. But now, the governor has gone too far - sending a message to all New Jerseyans, and especially our children, that following the law is optional.

Christie’s beef is that the Supreme Court justices are “activists.” Let me remind the governor of some basic Civics 101 facts. “Activist” judges are ones who go beyond the laws that are enacted by the legislature. An example might be federal judges who interfere with a state’s electoral system, as happened in 2000, or judges who actually enact laws like the US Supreme Court did in the Citizen’s United decision.

Activism is not the case when justices simply interpret the laws that are constitutionally mandated or enacted by the legislature. That’s the case that Governor Christie is all up in arms about. The New Jersey Constitution mandates a “thorough and efficient” education for all students. The Supreme Court is about to rule on whether or not this clause is being implemented by the executive branch, given that the governor took one billion dollars away from education, while at the same time giving millionaires a tax break almost as large.

When pressed by the radio host, the governor said that if the court decides in favor of public school students, he will still not raise taxes to account for the funding shortfall, but would rather take that money from other vital services. He knows that such a decision would wreak havoc upon the citizens of New Jersey and is skillfully placing the blame on the court.  But he also leaves the option of disobeying the court decision on the table.

Regardless of the politics here, the governor is potentially establishing a dangerous precedent by spitting in the face of one of the linchpins of American democracy - the separation of powers. Instead of his flippant answer to the radio host, the governor should have made this a teaching moment for our kids. He should have responded that as governor, his job is to carry out the laws as established by the legislature and interpreted by the courts. He could have vehemently disagreed with the decision and vowed to work with the legislature to make the changes that he feels are necessary. But disobeying a court order is not an option - not for an ordinary citizen, and not for a governor. If he chooses to bully the legislature, the press, and public servants, that’s his prerogative. But as chief executive, and as example-setter-in-chief, Christie has only two options for ignoring a court order: resignation or impeachment.

Cross-posted from

1 comment:

  1. The school funding issue is fraught with danger for Christie. He has two things working in his favor.

    First, it is the NJ Supreme Court that routinely intrudes on the powers of the other two branches of government, and most people realize this. The court has a long history of ridiculous decisions, most notably the one that totally ignored NJ election law to allow the Democrats to replace a flailing Bob Torricelli on the ballot three weeks before an election. Would they have offered a similar courtesy to Republicans if they were in the same situation? Of course not.

    Second, the Abbott decision has been a disaster, both for the taxpayers and for students in poor districts that have had only money thrown in their direction. The result is epitomized by the Asbury Park district, which has the highest per capital spending and the lowest test scores in the state. Christie has proposed a set of reforms that for the first time since I have lived in New Jersey (33 years) might actually lead to an improvement in schools in the state’s poorest districts.

    Nevertheless, Christie has to be careful not to overplay his hand. As you suggest, outright defiance will lose him the support of many who support him on the merits. Here is how I think he should play it. Tell the court that he will obey their decision, but will not raise taxes to enforce it. If the court wants a billion dollars added to school expenditures, they will have to specify where to remove it from other places in the budget. If the court rises to that bait, they will now be in primary conflict not with the executive branch, but with the legislative branch. What would the legislature do? I wouldn’t want to be a legislator running for reelection on a platform of raising taxes to pay for the court’s idiotic Abbott decision, nor would I want to be one siphoning off a billion dollars from other programs.