New Jersey’s Top Court May Get Temporary Judge Amid Dispute

Governor Chris Christie’s decision not to reappoint New Jersey Supreme Court Justice John Wallace may force the state’s highest court to assign a temporary judge to fill a vacancy for the first time since the 1970s.

Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney said yesterday he would block the nomination of Republican attorney Anne Murray Patterson to replace Wallace, the first sitting member of the panel to be denied tenure. Neither Wallace nor Patterson can be seated during any impasse, said Winnie Comfort, a spokeswoman for the state judiciary.

“That becomes a vacancy by both the constitution and our court rules,” Comfort said in an interview. “The chief justice has the authority to make a temporary assignment to fill any vacancy.”

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner may appoint a stand-in from the ranks of retired Supreme Court justices or from the Appellate Division of Superior Court, Comfort said. Rabner, who was nominated to the panel in 2007 by former Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, said yesterday in a statement he was “disappointed” by Christie’s announcement he would not reappoint Wallace.

Christie, 47, a Republican who took office Jan. 19, angered Democratic lawmakers with the move to replace Wallace, a Democrat whose initial seven-year term ends May 20. Under New Jersey’s constitution, a justice who is reappointed after their first term remains until the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70. Wallace, the panel’s only black member, is 68.

‘Legislating From the Bench’

Christie, the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, said he believes the panel has a history of “legislating from the bench,” without naming any of Wallace’s decisions with which he disagreed. The governor said he made the move to begin reshaping the seven-member court, which is currently made up of four Democrats, two Republicans and an Independent.

Patterson, 51, 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.

Sweeney, 50, of West Deptford, said yesterday he wouldn’t authorize confirmation hearings on the nomination of Patterson. The senate president controls the chamber’s agenda, including nomination hearings. Democrats control the Legislature.

“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,” Sweeney told Bloomberg News yesterday in a telephone interview.

First Refusal

Christie won’t withdraw Patterson’s nomination because of Sweeney’s “reflexive” threat, Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the governor, said yesterday.

Since the state’s current constitution was adopted in 1947, no sitting Supreme Court judge has been denied reappointment. Former Justice Peter Verniero, who was appointed to the bench in 1999, stepped down in August 2004 to return to private practice prior to his term ending, Comfort said.

“This was not a decision I took lightly,’” Christie told reporters yesterday in Trenton. “This is about a different constitutional philosophy.”

Short Assignments

Dozens of temporary judges have been appointed to replace jurists who recuse themselves from certain cases, or for individual hearings when justices are sick or absent, Comfort said. Long-term replacements are rare, she said.

Milton Conford, a judge in the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court from 1953 until 1979, twice filled extended vacancies in the 1970s, Comfort said.

Conford, who died at 80 in 1989, was an acting justice from July 1972 to March 1973 and March 1975 to March 1977. He was one of two appellate judges brought up to fill two spots on the bench, Comfort said. During that time, he participated in rulings including the Mount Laurel zoning case, the opening of Little League baseball to girls and the Karen Ann Quinlan right-to-die case, according to his New York Times obituary.

“Absolutely, there is continuity,” Comfort said.

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