As he transitioned away from New Deal liberalism to Goldwater conservatism in the 1950s, Ronald Reagan began to speak out against “the enemy within” in a series of powerful speeches that celebrated America’s founding principles. In his commencement address at William Woods College in 1952, and at Eureka College, his alma matter, in 1957, the future president described America as a divinely inspired, historically distinct country.
Unfortunately, New Jersey has succumbed to the power and influence of its unelected judiciary; the very sort of entity that Reagan identified as a potentially lethal threat to the American constitutional order. Despite its own rich revolutionary history, the state has followed a progressive trajectory over the past few decades divorced from constitutional government. As much as contemporary residents relish and revere the “Spirit of 1776,” they actually inhabit a world that was reshaped by the N.J. Supreme Court with a series of rulings on education policy that reach back to Robinson v. Cahill in 1973. That would be the year self-government died in the Garden State.
AT A TIME WHEN the nation is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the former president’s birthday, Christie has very appropriately invoked Reaganesque language in an effort to restore constitutional checks and balances for the benefit of his overtaxed, underrepresented constituents. Christie explicitly campaigned on reforming the N.J. Supreme Court, which has a long history of intruding upon the policy-making authority of the executive and legislative branches. Before the end of his first term, Christie will get that chance. Up until now, elected officials in both parties have permitted the judiciary to interject itself into the public arena at taxpayer expense without a vigorous response.
“We’ve had an unholy alliance of Republicans and Democrats in this state who have the same belief in a progressive interpretation of the constitution that ignores fixed meanings,” Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll laments. “This goes a long way toward explaining where we are right now. Judges have consistently substituted their own public policy views for the actual language of the constitution.” An outspoken conservative, Carroll has been sharply critical of his own Republican governors for selecting activist judges who have appointed themselves as the high authority on policy matters that fall outside of the court’s purview.
Like Reagan, Christie is relying on his court picks as a way to reinstate the separation of powers and to end the practice of judicial activism. But it is worth recalling that the end result of Reagan’s own nomination efforts here were actually quite mixed and judges can be unpredictable.