Christie's New Jersey Court Nominee Replacing Wallace May Be Stalemated

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney plans to block Governor Chris Christie’s choice of Anne Murray Patterson for the state Supreme Court, replacing John E. Wallace Jr., the court’s only black member.

Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford, said today that he won’t authorize confirmation hearings on the nomination of Patterson, 51, a registered Republican. The senate president controls the chamber’s agenda, including nomination hearings.

Wallace, 68, is the first sitting justice not to win reappointment, the court’s chief justice said. Nominated by former Governor James McGreevey, a Democrat, Wallace’s seven- year term ends May 20. Christie, a former U.S. Attorney, cited “differing judicial philosophies” earlier today in naming Patterson, a lawyer, to replace Wallace.      “It’s the wrong message,” Sweeney said, explaining why he won’t act on the nomination. “If I called a hearing, I’d be sending the wrong message to all of the justices and judges on the bench right now that the governor can remove you if you make the wrong decision,” he said in a telephone interview.

Christie won’t withdraw Patterson’s nomination because of Sweeney’s “reflexive” threat, said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the governor.     “The constitution, which I’m sure he respects, calls for a seven-year initial tenure, at which point the governor has the authority to reappoint or not reappoint, Drewniak said. “The governor used his power under the constitution,” he said. “I’m sure Senator Sweeney will respect that process. We’ve fulfilled out constitutional duties. All we ask is that Senator Sweeney now fulfill his and provide a hearing for the nominee.”

Critical of Court

Christie, the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, has criticized the state’s highest court for “legislating from the bench.” Examples he cited today include the Abbott vs. Burke school-funding cases, the Mount Laurel affordable-housing rulings and the decision that allowed Senator Frank Lautenberg to replace fellow Democrat Robert Torricelli on the ballot for the U.S. Senate race in 2002.      “The court, over the course of three decades, has gotten out of control and has invaded the executive and legislative constitutional functions,” said Christie, a Republican who took office Jan. 19. “This is about a different constitutional philosophy. I believe that New Jersey has suffered mightily because of some of the decisions of the court,” he said today.

At a briefing for reporters, the governor declined to specify exactly which of Wallace’s decisions he disagreed with and said he had reviewed them “extensively.”

‘A Different Philosophy’

“If you look at his overall body of work, it represents a different philosophy -- that it’s OK to legislate from the bench and I don’t think it is,” Christie said. “The only way to change the court is to change its members. There’s no other way.”

Frank Askin, head of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at Rutgers University in Newark, said Christie’s move may erode the independence of justices whose terms are ending. After an initial seven-year term, justices who win reappointment have tenure until they reach 70, the mandatory retirement age.

“I think it’s a slap in the face to the huge African- American population in this state,” said Askin, who won a 1995 case involving anti-war protests at shopping malls in which Anne Patterson represented the other side. “John Wallace had no real ideology, and he called them like he saw them.”

Speaking to reporters, Christie defended his decision as “not a commentary on Justice Wallace.” Instead, he said, “it is a fulfillment of my promise to turn the court away from its history of using legal precedent to set social and tax policies in our state -- a role which belongs squarely with the legislative and executive branches of state government.”

Career as Judge

Wallace, a Democrat confirmed in May 2003, joined the panel after a career as a judge on the state appeals and superior courts, starting in 1984. He is a 1964 graduate of the University of Delaware and received a law degree from Harvard University in 1967, according to his court biography.     “I am disappointed,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said in a statement that echoed Askin’s concern for an independent judiciary. He said Christie broke “a tradition that governors have followed for more than a half century” by not reappointing Wallace.

“Citizens who turn to the court for relief are entitled to have their cases resolved by impartial judges who focus only on the even-handed pursuit of justice,” Rabner said. “Litigants should never have to worry that a judge may be more concerned about how a decision could affect his or her reappointment.”

Political Complexion

Christie said that adding Patterson will bring the seven- member court’s political complexion to three Republicans, three Democrats and one with no party affiliation. He is expected to make four nominations to the court during his term, according to Drewniak, his spokesman.

Patterson is a partner with the law firm Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti LLP in Morristown, New Jersey, specializing in state and federal product-liability and commercial litigation. She is a registered Republican, Christie told reporters. His office said she has been a member of the state Bar Association for 27 years, and was a deputy attorney general and special assistant to former state Attorney General Peter N. Perretti Jr. in 1989 and 1990.

Patterson was born in Trenton, graduated from Dartmouth College in 1980, and received her law degree from Cornell Law School in 1983. She is married to James E. Patterson, an attorney who specializes in labor and employment law for employers at Graham Curtin in Morristown.

“This nomination is the highest professional honor I could receive,” she said at the briefing with Christie.

Askin said Patterson is one of the most ethical, collegial and fair lawyers he has ever battled in court. He said he has “nothing bad to say about her.”

Contentious Process

Before Patterson can join the high court, she must be confirmed by the state Senate. Democrats control both houses of the Legislature.

Sweeney, a Democrat from Wallace’s home county of Gloucester in southern New Jersey, said on May 1 that he understood there was a chance that Wallace might not be reappointed. If that were to occur, Sweeney said he expected the confirmation process to be contentious.

“The off-handed dismissal of this jurist shows a lack of respect for the co-equal branches of government and offends every governor who has preceded him,” Senator Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat of Linden who heads the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. His panel must agree to Patterson’s appointment. “Justice Wallace’s reputation, experience and service prove him to be the most-qualified and only sensible choice for this seat on the court.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Terrence Dopp in Trenton, New Jersey, at tdopp@bloomberg.net.

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