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Christie blasts court on schools ruling

The ink was barely dry on the 215-page New Jersey Supreme Court decision Tuesday ordering more money for schools when Gov. Christie seized the political moment in a hot Cherry Hill building where the New Jersey Army National Guard runs drills.

The ink was barely dry on the 215-page New Jersey Supreme Court decision Tuesday ordering more money for schools when Gov. Christie seized the political moment in a hot Cherry Hill building where the New Jersey Army National Guard runs drills.

"You don't elect the Supreme Court; you don't expect them to be making law," Christie told several hundred people gathered at his weekly traveling town hall.

"But today, they made law. Because today, they sent an appropriations bill for $500 million that was not passed by the Legislature, that was not signed by the governor. Go to the Constitution and tell me, how the hell did they get away with that?"

Christie linked the Supreme Court to his other political nemeses: Democrats, who he said will want to raise taxes to find the $500 million, and the teachers union, which resists his education proposals.

In that sense, experts said, even though he got what he called an "invoice" on Tuesday, he also got a little political gift. The decision "provides kind of a fall guy for his inability to do everything he wants to do in terms of property taxes," said Brigid Harrison, a Montclair State University political scientist.

The governor has railed against the court since his campaign, but the narrative sharpened Tuesday in an effort to convince New Jerseyans that he needs to change both the makeup of the court and the educational system.

Even though more than $20,000 is spent per student in Camden, he said, "we're seeing failure factory after failure factory . . . turn out children who cannot get a job, who often cannot read above the fourth-grade level, and you, you, are paying for that."

"And the Supreme Court just said to you, 'How about you pay some more?' "

In another move that experts said was politically calculated, Christie is putting the onus on the Legislature to decide where the $500 million will come from before the fiscal 2012 budget is due on June 30. In a year when all 120 legislative seats are up for election, that makes it seem as if the Democrats who control the Legislature are spending more money.

"It's smart for Christie to throw that to the Legislature, because the Legislature has got to make a choice now," said Peter Woolley, a pollster and professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "Are they going to find this money without raising taxes, or are they going to use this as a reason for raising taxes?"

At the town hall, Christie called out the local legislator, Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald (D., Camden), mocking a proposal he made this month to allow municipalities to raise income and sales taxes in exchange for lowering property taxes. Greenwald said the proposal was an innovative way to ease the tax burden.

"Now I don't know, I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but if you're trying to lower taxes, why would you make more of them?" Christie asked.

Matthew Hale, a Seton Hall political science professor, said forcing the legislators' hand "plays right into Christie's message."

"Christie has been saying all along that there are people in Trenton finding new and creative ways to spend your money," he said.

Greenwald countered in an interview with reporters that it was Christie's responsibility to share his thoughts on how to revise the budget to comply with the court order.

"I played sports my whole life, and real leaders want the ball when the game is on the line," he said. "They don't punt it to the other side."

Assembly budget officer Declan O'Scanlon (R., Monmouth) said: "I don't think it's a tough punt." He supports paying for the court-ordered education spending with the hundreds of millions of dollars in unexpected revenues that budget forecasters told legislators last week would be collected through fiscal 2012.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said the state should use the revenue to provide $500 million in additional funding for 174 underfunded school districts - on top of the $500 million that the court ordered for the 31 former Abbott districts.

Christie said last week that next year he plans to change the formula that dictates how much money every school district gets. And in the process, he's going to hammer away at the court until he can garner control.

He can appoint four justices in his first term; his first nominee gets her first hearing next week. Tuesday's ruling was 3-2, with two justices recusing themselves.

"He's really the first governor to come out and criticize the court that squarely," Woolley said. "The court has always been a repository of friends of the governor and Legislature, and everyone has always been happy to let the court do what they didn't want to do."

Political experts and court watchers say they don't know whether Christie's repeated criticism of the court influenced the decision, or whether the justices were affected by his extraordinary threat to ignore the ruling if he didn't like it.

But they did note that the court opted for $500 million, instead of the $1.7 billion that it could have ordered, "and we will never know" why, said Rutgers-Camden law professor Robert F. Williams.

"We're left to wonder."