Will Chris Christie, New Jersey’s tough Republican Governor and rising GOP star, be the next president of the United States? That prospect is much less likely if the accusations of Yvonne Smith Segars, the head of New Jersey’s Office of the Public Defender, turn out to be accurate.
In a scathing letter [PDF] sent to the Governor on Monday, she charged Christie with having “violated New Jersey law as well as the State and Federal Constitutions,” in his efforts to remove her from her post, and by interfering with the operation of her office. In the letter, Segars threatened to sue him for eroding the constitutional rights of indigent clients. She says he’s actively undermining the work of the state’s public defenders by “obstructing…management decisions and by impeding the filling of constitutionally mandated positions.”
Segars accused Christie of “bullying tactics” in an effort to remove her from office. The tactics, according to NJ’s chief Public Defender, included “veiled threats”, “pressure to resign”, “interference with [the] agency’s operations” by thwarting approved promotions, and ordering her press officer to report to the Governor, instead of to her.
Segars adds that she “now fear[s] being physically removed from my office.”
If the accusations are true, this and other unpopular actions could well serve to help unravel future political ambitions for Christie, who is regarded as a rising star among the “Tea Party” and right-wing base of the Republican party.
In a blistering email statement, Segars’ attorney charged Christie is “tamper[ing] with the independence of the judiciary and now with the independence of the Public Defender” in what amounts to an “illegal and unconstitutional” “power grab” meriting impeachment by the state legislature…
If Segars is forced out, there will be only one high-ranking African-American policy official in the Christie administration. NJ law clearly gives the Public Defender the sole authority to staff and operate the office. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court in Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507 (1980), ruled that a political executive who interferes with a public defender’s staffing decisions violates the U.S. Constitution.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Gideon v. Wainwright decision ruled that all people charged with crimes, even the poor, have the right to a lawyer. Public Defenders in New Jersey represent those who can’t afford an attorney in criminal cases.
Segars, an African-American, oversees an agency of 1,300 employees, including over 500 staff attorneys. A defense attorney for more than 18 years, she was appointed chief public defender nine years ago and has now worked during the administrations of four NJ Governors, including Christie.
Last Thursday, Christie nominated Assistant Deputy Public Defender Joseph Krakora as Segars’ successor. Krakora has been with the Public Defender’s Office for 22 years.
According to her attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, a spokesman for the Christie administration claimed Segars misunderstood Christie’s actions, but she is not the only one who sees the move as political retaliation. An unnamed source quoted in the New Jersey Law Journal ($ubscription required) stated, “Segars was ‘living on borrowed time’ ever since her Superior Court nomination was derailed in 2008 when Republicans accused her of firing a GOP deputy public defender, Christine Leone-Zwillinger, to make way for a Democratic ally of Gov. James McGreevey.” Although no evidence linked Segars to the firing, the state paid $250,000 to settle Leone-Zwillinger’s wrongful-termination suit.
Last week, calls to Segars were referred to Christie’s office and, to date, Christie has not explained the reason he is seeking a change.
Christie’s action against Segars is likely to be thwarted, however, since she is allowed to remain as the head Public Defender until the Senate approves Krakora’s nomination. State Senator Loretta Weinberg, a member of NJ’s Senate Judiciary Committee, said Christie is likely to face strong opposition to any attempt to quickly change public defenders. Under NJ law (N.J.S.A. 2A:158A-4), the Public Defender serves “until the appointment and qualification of [his or her] successor.”
In her letter, Segars says Christie is wrong in his contention that she serves “at [the] pleasure” of the Governor.
“You do not have the power to force me out of office,” claims Segars, who goes on to accuse Christie of trying to implement a “unitary executive” —- a theory that all executive authority, without exception, exists in the hands of a President or Governor.
“You are treating my career as expendable and state government as if you are a unitary executive with unbridled power,” writes Segars. “You do not have the power to force me out of office. Nor do you have the power to decide what position I will hold when my successor is named and qualified. Nor does my successor have the right to do your bidding and make staffing decisions based upon your political agenda.”
After I talked to Segar’s lawyer, Nancy Smith, one of New Jersey’s most respected employment lawyers, she sent an email railing against the Governor’s actions.
“This power grab is illegal and unconstitutional and the legislature should impeach him,” Smith said. “He has no respect for the law, for the legislature, and therefore, for democracy. He thinks he is king. He has tampered with the independence of the judiciary and now with the independence of the Public Defender. His arrogance and political aspirations have no bounds.”
Smith’s reference to tampering with an independent judiciary refers to Christie’s recent termination of Supreme Court Justice John Wallace, another African-American, considered by many to be a moderate and professional jurist. The Senate has yet to confirm Christie’s replacement for Wallace, Anne Patterson, a white lawyer who has largely devoted her life to defending big corporations, leaving the state Supreme Court with no African-Americans on its bench. The President of the NJ Senate, Democrat Stephen M. Sweeney, vowed last year that Patterson’s nomination would not be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Christie may be loved by the right wing, but a poll last month revealed that just a bare majority of NJ residents, 51%, approve of Christie’s performance, though only 37% expressed disapproval.
His education and municipal aid cut backs and attacks on public employees, his botched application for federal education funds, which resulted in a loss of $400 million, and his absence from the state during a recent blizzard, which brought the state to a halt, all have served to tarnish his reputation. If Segar’s accusations are true and if he continues to play to his national base and trample on the rights of New Jersey citizens, especially the middle class and the poor, his esteem in the eyes of the public is likely to drop, along with the possibilities for a future run at the Presidency.
In the closing remarks of her letter to Christie, Segars demonstrated that she remained undaunted by the Governor’s tactics:
“Now that you have named my successor,” she concluded, “I will assist in any way with his transition once he is qualified by the Senate. Then I will return to a position on the Office of the Public Defender which is commensurate with my qualifications and experience. Until then, I am the Public Defender and remain undaunted. I will operate my office and make staffing decisions under the law. I request that you release the personnel actions that you have blocked and refrain from interfering in the day to day operations of the Office of the Public Defender. I am prepared to go to court in order to fully serve the public until my last minute in this position. I will not bow to your political interference. The Constitution and the law require my vigilance and ethical courage.”
• Exclusive: Segars 2/21/11 letter to Gov. Christie [PDF]
John Atlas, a free lance journalist, author and blogger for the NJ Star-Ledger is a former public interest lawyer and the executive director of Passaic County Legal Aid Society, located in Paterson, New Jersey. He is the author of SEEDS OF CHANGE.The Story of Acorn, America’s Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group, a myth-busting, widely-praised exclusive look behind the scenes at the four-decade old community organization. (Available at Amazon and at the Progressive Book Club.)