Governor Christie’s FDR Moment?

April 24th, 2011

If the New Jersey Supreme Court orders that Governor Christie (a former United States Attorney) provide over $1 billion in additional funding to public schools, will the Governor simply ignore that order? Possibly. From

Gov. Christie said last week that he had mulled defying a possible order from New Jersey’s Supreme Court to restore funding to schools.

The statement, on a call-in radio show, left legal scholars wondering whether this was the Republican governor just spouting threats and bluster – or foreshadowing an unprecedented break with tradition.

If Christie ignores the ruling, scholars said, he could be ruled in contempt of court and personally fined, he could be impeached for violating his oath of office, or he could trigger a constitutional crisis and the statewide closing of schools.

Or maybe nothing would result, and voters would be left to decide whether to reelect a governor who overruled the highest court in his state in the name of fiscal prudence.

Christie’s opponents compare such defiance to that of Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus who stood in the doorways of Little Rock High School to prevent its desegregation, as ordered by a Federal Court.

To the Rutgers University faculty member who founded the group suing for more school funding, such defiance is so unfathomable it calls to mind the Arkansas governor who, 54 years ago, ignored the U.S. Supreme Court order to integrate public schools.

“In our system, one branch doesn’t say to another: ‘Sorry, you have acted in your authority, but I don’t like your actions, so I don’t have to follow it,’ ” said professor Paul Tractenberg. “Christie might not be literally standing in the schoolhouse doors and blocking them, but he’s doing something very” similar

I suppose that analogy works, but in my mind, this is quite similar to an FDR moment in 1936/37. Think about it. President Roosevelt had an electoral mandate to transform how the government runs in response to an economic crisis. The U.S. Supreme Court (as the story goes) was repeatedly standing in FDR’s way of reforming the economy, clinging to an old interpretation of the Constitution that just didn’t work in today’s society. Here Christie was elected, in large part, to reign in spending and help cut deficits in a state with bleak financial prospects. Yet, the Supreme Court may issue an order, based on an obscure constitutional provision, to totally turn his proposed budget on his head, and force him to make unpopular cuts elsewhere (Medicare, police, etc.) That’s a real situation in Jersey. We have competing visions of economic policy between the Chief Executive and the Highest Court. The Executive threatens to ignore the Court, which ostensibly, may lose the will of the people.

Who will blink first? Will there be a switch in time? Who will be Justice Owen Roberts? Would the Court actually hold Christie in contempt? Stay tuned.