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Gov. Christie verbally bullied Judge Linda Feinberg

The Times of Trenton Newapaper
By Irwin Stoolmacher

I have previously described our governor as “decisive, but divisive.” I was being kind – make no mistake about it Governor Christie is your classic verbal bully who uses the “imbalance of power” to abuse and sully the reputation of his targeted victims.

The latest example of the governor’s over-the-top verbal bullying is his recent “stinging criticism” (term used by The Times in October 19th story entitled “Christie criticizes judge’s health plan ruling) of Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg. Governor Christie “lashed out” (term used by Newark Star-Ledger on October 18th) at Judge Feinberg’s ruling that sitting judges are protected by the state constitution from salary reductions while in office and as a result are exempt from the governor’s new pension and health benefit plan requiring them to contribute a larger share of their salaries.

The essence of Judge Feinberg’s 59-page ruling was that increasing Supreme and Superior Court Judge’s pension contributions would violate an existing state law that provides that their salaries “shall not be diminished during their term of appointment.” This provision was no doubt included to insulate judges from political influence and reprisals.

While I’m not sure I agree with Judge Feinberg’s ruling (while paying a higher portion of one’s salary for health/pension benefits reduces one’s take-home pay, I’m not sure it is a salary reduction), I totally disagree with the manner in which the governor personally attacked Judge Feinberg, a judge with an impeccable record of integrity and honesty.

It is one thing to disagree with Judge Feinberg’s decision from a legal perspective. It is another to describe the decision as “self-interested and outrageous,” accuse Judge Feinberg of protecting her “cronies,” describe all judges as “elitists” and comparing the Judge to Bryan Christiansen, the former head of the Passaic Valley Sewer Commission who resigned after the governor described the scandal-ridden agency as a house of “political hacks” and questioned his $313,000 salary. Judge Feinberg earns $165,000 annually, about half of Christiansen’s salary.

Susan Feeney, President of the New Jersey State Bar Association, was on the mark when she said that the governor’s remarks were a “blatant attempt to mislead the public and influence the judicial process. Further, his personal criticism of Mercer County Assignment Judge Linda Feinberg is unwarranted and irresponsible.” Likewise, Frank Askin, director of the constitutional litigation clinic at Rutgers University, pointed out that “It’s probably not a good form to be denouncing a judge for her decision. We have an appellate process. He’s a bit of a bully at times. He occasionally lapses into inappropriate tirades against those he disagrees with.”

From a purely equitable, not a legal perspective, I clearly disagree with Judge Feinberg ruling. These are very tough times and I believe that the burden should be balanced and shared as fairly as possible. If state workers are being required to pay a higher portion of their pension and health benefits, members of the judiciary should also. But then again I’m a progressive who is a very strong proponent of the millionaire tax and the concept of shared sacrifice.

As far as I’m concerned it is totally hypocritical for Governor Christie to take umbrage on Judge Feinberg’s ruling from a “fundamental fairness” perspective in lieu of his cutting the Earned Income Tax credit for our state’s poor by 25 percent and simultaneously refusing to reinstate the millionaires’ tax for the state’s most wealthy individuals.

Despite the tongue-lashing administered by Governor Christie, a Superior Court judge has upheld the original decision pending the state’s appeal of Judge Feinberg’s decision. Now the governor is calling for a constitutional amendment that would bypass the courts.

There is no doubt that Governor Christie was using his bully pulpit to try to take the state Assembly and Senate in the recent elections. That’s politics New Jersey style.

What is outside the realm of traditional New Jersey politics is for our governor to consistently and blatantly verbally abuse and disrespect those he disagrees with. It is about time the New Jersey electorate made it clear that verbal abuse will not be tolerated in New Jersey no matter who the perpetrator is. The governor needs to stop his verbal abuse. You can sharply disagree with someone without abusing them or questioning their integrity.

Former N.J. Assembly Speaker Joe Doria, who was recently cleared of all charges against him following a two-year federal investigation, had this to say about politics in New Jersey in a recent interview by Bob Braun, Star-Ledger columnist. “People in politics no longer know each other as people – we are treating each other only as political opponents who must be defeated. We are demons, stereotypes. We’re no longer men and women of good will who see things differently, we’re enemies … Disagreements just aren’t disagreements anymore – if you disagree with someone, then that other person must be corrupt. If you’re for compromise with someone, then there’s got to be something corrupt about you – you must have done something corrupt.”

Governor Christie should take Joe Doria’s words to heart.