N.J. Justice to Step Down; Christie Leaving Seat Open

New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto, who said he wouldn’t render any rulings amid a standoff over an empty seat on the court, decided not to seek reappointment when his term expires in September.

Governor Chris Christie, a first-term Republican, said in a statement that he won’t name a replacement for Rivera-Soto until the Senate schedules a hearing to consider Anne Murray Patterson, his nominee to fill an existing vacancy on the court.

Christie and Democratic lawmakers have clashed over the governor’s May decision to nominate Patterson, a Republican attorney, and oust sitting Justice John Wallace, a Democrat and the panel’s only black member. The move marked the first time a governor denied a sitting member tenure. Justices in New Jersey serve an initial seven-year term followed by tenure until they reach the maximum retirement age of 70.

Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney has refused to authorize confirmation hearings on the nomination of Patterson. The court has functioned with a stand-in appointed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

‘Legislating From the Bench’

Rivera-Soto, 57, was nominated to the court by Democratic Governor James McGreevey and began his term in September 2004. He is the first Hispanic American to serve on the panel. In December, Rivera-Soto wrote in a decision that he would abstain from future rulings because he believed Rabner’s move to have a temporary justice issue rulings was unconstitutional.

“It is time for me to return to my first and true professional love: the practice of law,” Rivera-Soto said in a letter to Christie today. “I always will be grateful for the unique opportunity of service this appointment has provided, and I extend my warmest and best wishes to whoever my successor may be.”

Christie, the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, accused the court of “legislating from the bench” when he announced his decision not to reappoint Wallace. He declined to say which of Wallace’s decisions he opposed. Examples of court rulings Christie criticized included 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.

No Hearing

The governor said he appointed Patterson to begin reshaping the seven-member court, which at the time was made up of four Democrats, two Republicans and an Independent.

“Today, 245 days later, she has yet to receive a fair hearing as required by New Jersey’s Constitution while a seat on our highest court continues to remain vacant,” Christie said in a statement today. “I will not provide a nominee to fill Justice Rivera-Soto’s seat until Anne Patterson receives the hearing that she deserves and that the Senate is constitutionally obligated to provide.” Sweeney said Rivera-Soto “created a no-show job for himself” with his decision to abstain. The senator said he won’t be swayed by the governor’s decision not to name a successor.

“I’ve never seen the court politicized to this extent, and the governor started that politicization,” Sweeney, of West Deptford, said in a telephone interview. “The governor chose to pick a well-qualified justice and not reappoint him for one reason and one reason alone: to politicize the court.”

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