Matt Katz, New Jersey Public Radio
The Democratic Assembly flexed its muscle Thursday, opting to leave the Statehouse instead of voting on a bail reform package that Gov. Chris Christie called them back from summer vacation to vote on.
Christie wants a constitutional amendment put on the ballot in November's election to allow voters to decide whether judges should have the power to deny bail to those accused of violent crimes, so they don't get out and re-offend. Additionally, he wants a new law to allow judges to release non-violent offenders without bail, so poor people don't languish in jails before their trials.
To get the amendment piece of this package on the ballot in November, both the state Assembly and Senate have to approve it, with 60 percent majorities, by Monday. So Christie used his gubernatorial powers to call the legislators back to Trenton for an unusual special session. He then addressed both houses in the Assembly chambers for 20 minutes, urging them to vote on the bills.
The Senate ultimately approved the bills, with bipartisan support.
Assembly legislators, known for being more liberal and independent-minded than their counterparts in the upper house, simply left the Statehouse after Christie's speech without voting.
"Some will argue that this is not a crisis," Christie argued. "To me, every day that someone fears for their life on our streets is a crisis. To me, every day that someone is deprived of their liberty in a jail for no reason is a crisis. And I suspect that if it were your mother or father, your son or daughter, your sister or brother, who felt the graveness of that violent threat or sat unjustly in a jail cell that it would be a crisis for you."
Word is that the Assembly could return to Trenton Monday to vote, but several legislators said they had outstanding questions about the implications of the proposals, and were skeptical about the rush to get it done. They said the constitutional amendment wouldn't even take effect until 2017, so they could just vote on it next year.
Democrats said they suspected Christie wanted a policy victory to put in his pocket for a presidential run next year, and Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski went so far as to call it a "public relations stunt." Fueling that speculation was the fact that after his speech to the Legislature, Christie flew to New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first presidential primary, to campaign for a Republican gubernatorial candidate.
The bail reform measures might not be much of a factor in a 2016 race. But their passage could help Christie in a few ways:
1) The bills had bipartisan support, and if Christie runs he will frame himself as someone who can effectively work with Democrats.
2) The tough-on-crime element of the constitutional amendment would allow Christie to push back on accusations from conservatives that he's too liberal on judicial matters because he reappointed a Democratic chief justice to the Supreme Court.
3) In a GOP presidential primary showdown against Sen. Rand Paul, who has called for scaling back the nation's drug laws, Christie can point to how he moved New Jersey away from warehousing those accused of marijuana-related offenses.
4) Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick said Christie demonstrated "leadership" by calling the Legislature back from the beach. "If that helps him in a presidential primary, God bless him," Bramnick said.