ATLANTIC CITY - In an unusually pointed response to Gov. Christie's frequent excoriation of the judiciary, state Supreme Court Justice Barry T. Albin asserted in a speech Friday that politicians' criticism of judicial decisions undermines democracy and weakens public confidence in the court.
Albin, whom Christie has criticized by name, was the lead speaker at a New Jersey State Bar Association panel on judicial independence.
Open criticism of judges' decisions could cause others to fear for their careers and undercut the ability of jurists throughout the system to render impartial judgments, he said.
"A judge should not be concerned about whether doing justice is a bad career move," Albin said.
His remarks were greeted at several points with enthusiastic applause from the lawyers gathered for the bar association's annual meeting. Several hundred attended Albin's speech.
During a panel discussion afterward, State Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R., Essex) offered a robust defense of Christie's approach, saying it was the role of politicians to hold jurists accountable.
"Did you ever see how judges were made?" O'Toole asked. "There is a political component to this. That is how it works."
Christie criticized the state Supreme Court during his 2009 gubernatorial campaign and openly took issue with the court on several occasions after his election.
In 2011, when the court approved a $500 million hike in aid to urban school districts, he criticized Albin as someone who "can take his hand and put it in your pocket and take your money."
In another controversial move in 2010, Christie declined to renominate Supreme Court Justice John E Wallace Jr., a Gloucester County Democrat and Harvard-trained lawyer, to a tenured term on the court.
It was a precedent-shattering decision because renominations had until then been done on a pro forma basis. Judges were presumed eligible for tenure unless they had engaged in outrageous misconduct or failed to evince the proper probity and demeanor, and neither was a factor with Wallace.
At the time, Christie cited no specific issue with Wallace's jurisprudence. But he said that the court had become too activist and that he intended to change its composition.
After signing legislation requiring all state employees, including judges, to contribute more to their health and welfare plans, Christie criticized Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg for ruling that the law was unconstitutional. Feinberg, he said, "was protecting her pocketbook and those of her colleagues."
The decision, he added, was "why the public has grown to have such little faith in the objectivity of the judiciary."
The state Supreme Court upheld Feinberg's decision, finding that the legislation amounted to a judicial pay cut and that such reductions were barred by the state constitution. But the Legislature voted to put the issue on the ballot, and voters overwhelmingly adopted a constitutional amendment in November permitting the compensation cut for judges.
Albin said Friday that subjecting such decision-making to raw politics threatened to weaken the entire judicial system because judges who are subject to attack would be less likely to decide issues on legal principles.
In a clear reference to Wallace, Albin said, "The drafters [of the state constitution] wanted an independent judiciary, not a timid one; a judiciary strong and principled enough to protect fundamental rights even in the face of opposition from the other branches. The drafters did not contemplate that fit judges issuing unpopular rulings would be punished by nonreappointment."
During the discussion after Albin's remarks, former Superior Court Judge Maurice Gallipoli of Hudson County, a Republican, said the public had little understanding of the doctrine of separation of powers, a constitutional principle aimed at ensuring that no branch of government came to dominate the others.
"Do I have any confidence that the public understands the separation of powers?" he asked. "The unequivocal answer is no."