By Colleen O’Dea

NJ Gov. Chris Christie
NJ Gov. Chris Christie
An appeals court has checked Gov. Chris Christie’s drive to unilaterally remake New Jersey government — without legislative approval.

The Thursday ruling, which spoke specifically to Christie’s elimination of the Council on Affordable Housing, is expected to have wider implications, particularly in the controversial plan to reorganize Rutgers University.

“While the framers of our Constitution intended to create a strong executive in the office of Governor (perhaps the strongest in the United States), they also recognized the need to insulate functions and agencies from executive control,” wrote Judge Philip Carchman for the court.

“The governor exceeded his authority under the Reorganization Act in abolishing COAH,” Carchman continued.

The ruling should pave the way for the restoral of the 12-member body first created by the Fair Housing Act in 1985 to ensure that municipalities meet their constitutionally obligated share of affordable housing as decreed by the state Supreme Court in its Mount Laurel decisions.

The Christie administration has vowed to appeal.

“We are obviously disappointed with the court decision, which only perpetuates the nightmare New Jersey has endured for decades with the COAH bureaucracy,” said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak.

“The administration will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court and remains committed to Gov. Christie’s original pledge to abolish COAH, a pledge that has bi-partisan support and the support of local leaders across New Jersey.”

The decision noted that Christie’s reorganization plan followed the legislature’s passage of a bill eliminating COAH in January 2011. But lawmakers did not concur with the terms of the governor’s conditional veto, and the bill’s sponsors withdrew it.

Christie had tried to block COAH early in his administration via executive order but backed off when the appellate division stayed that part of his order.

“The issue in this case is not whether COAH should or should not be an active participant in developing and implementing policies for affordable housing in New Jersey,” Carchman wrote.

“We conclude that the power to abolish COAH rests exclusively with the legislature,” he stated.

The ruling buoyed faculty at Rutgers-Camden who oppose a proposal — expected to be embodied in an executive reorganization plan — that would merge the campus with Rowan University.

Allan Stein, a professor at the Camden law school, interpreted the ruling broadly, saying the court’s statements that the governor cannot reorganize agencies that are “in but not of” the executive branch would apply to the proposed reorganization.

“I think it’s pretty clear there’s no way the governor could implement the Rutgers-Rowan merger after that decision,” said Stein, president of the Campaign to Save Rutgers Camden. “We are not even in the executive branch . . . The court said, ‘You can’t reorganize an entity you don’t have operational authority over.'”


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