Ordering the Courts: Right Wing Attacks on Judicial Independence in 2000

New Jersey

Right-wing activists who were displeased with state Supreme Court rulings took action to drastically limit the independence of the state’s highest court. In retaliation for the Court’s decision striking down the Parental Notification of Abortion Act on the grounds that it violated the privacy rights of teenage girls and the equal protection clause of the state constitution, Assemblyman Jack Collins introduced an amendment designed to effectively strip the court of the authority to decide such issues. The proposed amendment never mentioned the words “abortion” or “parental notification,” but rather stated that the legislature may require notification any time a minor “undergoes any medical or surgical procedure, irrespective of any right or interest otherwise provided in this Constitution.”23 The proposed amendment received praise and support from numerous Republican legislators, as well as from the Concerned Women for America and the League of American Families, whose executive director claimed that the state’s Supreme Court justices should have been impeached. Marie Tasy, New Jersey director of Right to Life, also praised the amendment, saying its broad language would also cover the distribution of the abortion pill RU-486.

After much emotional debate, in which opponents of the measure argued that the amendment could prevent teenagers from visiting rape crisis centers or seeking other emergency treatment, a majority of the state Assembly approved the amendment but it fell four votes short of achieving the threefifths majority needed to place the measure on the ballot in 2001. Thus, the bill was sent on to the Senate for consideration, where the wording was narrowed to address only procedures that involve pregnancy. The change made it impossible for the Senate to consider the measure before the end of the 2000 legislative session and essentially rendered the previous Assembly vote moot. To put the new amendment on the ballot in November 2001, both the Assembly and the Senate must approve the measure this year by a three-fifths “super-majority.” Failing that, the measure must pass by a simple majority in two consecutive years.

Furthermore, Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll introduced three separate constitutional amendments designed to undermine the authority and independence of the state Supreme Court. One amendment would prohibit the court from deciding cases in which a remedy was sought that would require the state to raise taxes, spend money, or refrain from doing either, unless specifically authorized by the legislature.24 Another would abolish life tenure for Supreme Court justices, limiting their terms to seven years, after which they would stand for retention. It would also establish a mandatory retirement age of 70 years.25 Perhaps the most egregious attack upon the court’s independence was Carroll’s proposed amendment that would allow the state Legislature to invalidate any Supreme Court ruling, in whole or in part, by a vote of two-thirds in both Houses.26 Currently none of the amendments have made it beyond the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

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