“No comment,” he said at a press conference to name a Newark school superintendent, visibly bristling when asked how seriously he is considering ignoring the state Supreme Court.
“I heard the question very clearly, and I don’t have any comment,” Christie repeated minutes later when pressed by a second reporter. “If you just want to follow up on why I ‘no commented’ that, then my answer to you is no comment.”
It was two weeks ago on a conservative-talk radio station that Christie said he could ignore the court ruling — which could result in him being ordered to spend $1.7 billion more money on schools.
Since then, he has gone mute, refusing to respond to repeated inquiries about possible defiance.
With a ruling from the Supreme Court possible at any moment, tensions are escalating. Christie might be mum now on whether he’ll ignore the court, but he is not shy about painting a dire picture of the state should the court rule against him — warning of possible draconian cuts, even singling out an individual justice.
The mere suggestion that he could just disregard a ruling sent the legal community into a frenzy.
“If the governor of the state says he’s not going to obey a court order, that’s a constitutional crisis,” said Earl Maltz, a law professor Rutgers-Camden who works with the conservative Federalist Society. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Legal scholars aren’t sure what would happen if Christie ignores a court order to pump additional money into public schools. Could Christie, a lawyer by trade, be disbarred? Could he be held in contempt of court — and thrown in jail? Or impeached, as some Democrats have suggested? Christie also won’t say if he’s looking into the possible ramifications.
“We’d be in uncharted terrain,” said Paul Tractenberg, a Rutgers law professor and founder of the Education Law Center.
His comments could just be an effort to scare justices, not a serious consideration, said Rutgers law professor Frank Askin.
“Christie tends to shoot from the hip, so who knows,” Askin said. “Was it really thought out in advance? I don’t know.”
Christie won’t say if it was a throw-away comment or a peek at his plans.
“Buzz off,” he said last week when asked about the issue in the Statehouse.
But his silence on whether he would defy the court doesn’t mean he has stopped talking about the case.
He has warned the state could suffer if he has to shift money from other parts of the budget to fulfill a court order on education. He conjures up the specter of shuttered hospitals and shrinking municipal police forces and fire departments. He is now including the potential cuts as part of his stump speech at his weekly town hall meetings.
“I’m not trying to send any message to the court. I’m communicating to my constituents,” he said today about his warnings of the consequences of the court decision.
He’s also been sharply critical of Justice Barry Albin as the example of how “judges have lost their sense of place in our democracy.”
Albin questioned how the governor could argue poverty in justifying the cuts when he opted to veto an extension of the so-called “millionaires tax.” Albin and a spokeswoman have declined to comment on Christie’s remarks.
“When I want to send a message I say it, I don’t allude to it,” Christie said. “When I think a justice has operated in an extra-constitutional fashion on the bench I say it and I say his name. I’m not trying to be cute here.”
Christie has argued that he won’t raise taxes and it’s irresponsible to send more money to failing school districts. The courts are feeding a failed equation, Christie said, that more money equals better schools.
Assemblyman Joseph Malone (R-Burlington) expects voters to back Christie in any fight with the court.
“Most people I talk to are totally disgusted with the meddling,” said Malone, a former teacher. “The Supreme Court has created a monster that people are tired of living with.”
There just isn’t enough money to start increasing school spending, Malone said.
“To do that, we’d have to destroy the rest of the state,” he said. “The Supreme Court keeps saying, the money is the answer. It’s not the answer.”
Askin doesn’t think the threats of defiance will materialize into action.
“He is just trying to put pressure on the court,” Askin said. “They’re under a lot of pressure now. Several of the members don’t have tenure and they know Christie is not going to reappoint them if they defy them.”
One year ago, Christie took the unprecedented step of declining to reappoint Justice John Wallace Jr., saying he was trying to remake a court that has become too activist.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said Christie is trying to bully justices with his public broadsides.
“Can he write his own constitution? I think he wants to,” Sweeney said. “He wants someone like a crier at town hall to come out and hold a document and say ‘King Christie declares, so be it law.’”
Some legal experts question whether Christie can even defy the court unilaterally since he shares responsibility for the budget with the Legislature.
“There are all of these questions about what the court will do,” said Robert Williams, who is a law professor at Rutgers-Camden. “Then there’s the question, what will the other two branches do? It’s kind of like a sports event. These plays are so complicated and hard to predict with all of these moving parts.”
A move to defy the court would be met with strong opposition from the Democratic-controlled Legislature and set up a confrontation over the budget.
In that scenario, Sweeney said lawmakers should pass the so-called millionaires tax, an income tax surcharge on residents making more than $1 million a year. Christie has already vetoed on version and say he won’t sign another.
Maneuvering by Christie to defy the court could be seen as an opening for his political opponents, who argue that ignoring a ruling would be a violation of the governor’s oath of office.
“That would be grounds for impeachment,” said Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), even though Democrats lack the votes needed. “We are a nation of laws, and contempt for the law by the highest elected official of the state would be a grave offense that would undermine the integrity of the office of governor.”