“I’m glad I’m not one of those who has left this world — you’re treating me as one who has. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Those were the words of former New Jersey Supreme Court Associate Justice John Wallace Jr. to a room full of supporters over four years ago.
In 2010, Wallace, who came to the end of his seven-year term as the only African-American on the Garden State’s highest court, was two years away from the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70. At the time, Governor Chris Christie refused to reappoint the jurist to the bench, marking the first time a New Jersey governor had failed to renew a justice since the state constitution had been adopted in 1947.
This also marked the first time in 16 years that the New Jersey court would not have a black sitting justice, which it does not have to this day.
Democrats were angered over the removal of Justice Wallace, and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Christie “decided to inject ‘rank politics’ into the historic independence of the state’s judiciary.” Critics accused the governor of harming the integrity of the court and, according to the Newark Star-Ledger, only helping to fuel partisan battles in the future by going against custom and not reappointing Wallace to the bench. An editorial in the New York Times called the move “a case of political overreach.”
“I am disappointed by that decision” said Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, a friend of Gov. Christie, in support of Wallace, a Democrat.
A Harvard Law graduate and former captain in the U.S. Army who previously sat on a municipal court, the New Jersey Superior Court and the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, Wallace was known as a moderate voice on the bench with a solid judicial career marked by integrity and free of scandal. Chrsitie claimed Wallace had contributed to “out-of-control” liberal activism on the court.
Now, some observers are making a connection between the ousting of Justice Wallace and “Bridgegate,” the scandal plaguing the Christie administration, in which his office on August 13, 2013 ordered the closing of traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J.— allegedly in retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse the governor. The intentional blocking of traffic on the world’s busiest bridge from September 9-13 of last year created crippling traffic, including delays for emergency responders.
However, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC offered another theory behind Bridgegate; that Gov. Christie and his staffers retaliated against state Senate Democrats for blocking his nominees to the bench. First, Democrats made his first nominee, Anne Paterson, wait for another vacancy on the court until they considered her candidacy. Subsequently, for three years, Senate Democrats blocked a series of Christie’s nominees until 2013, when they signaled they would block the renomination of Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens (R), the wife of one of the governor’s aides.
On August 12, 2013, Christie withdrew Justice Hoens’ reappointment on the high court rather than resubmit her renomination. “I was not going to let her loose to the animals,” he angrily told reporters at a press conference, referring to the New Jersey Senate Democrats.
The next day, on August 13, Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, sent the following email message to David Wildstein, director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Port Authority, and high school classmate and confidant to the governor: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Meanwhile, New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg is from Fort Lee.
The Bridgegate scandal is particularly noteworthy to a national audience because Christie— until now a popular Republican in a blue state— has been touted as a leading potential GOP contender for a 2016 presidential run against Hilary Clinton. Some political and media observers, such as Peter Beinart in The Atlantic, have viewed Christie as the only candidate able to help the Republican Party—a party suffering from an unfavorable and highly unlikeable brand—sway wary voters. In addition to investigations over Bridgegate, Governor Christie also faces a federal probe into allegations he misused federal relief money for Hurricane Sandy in order to produce tourism commercials featuring himself and his family.
Today, John Wallace is an attorney in private practice, and the chair of the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards, the legislature’s committee which investigates allegation of misconduct among legislators.
TheGrio reached out to Wallace for comment on the ongoing Christie scandal but he didn’t want to weigh in. “It has been several years now since I was not renominated to our Supreme Court. I have declined all interview requests on this issue and continue with my decision not to publicly address the issue,” said Wallace.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove