Christie attempts to remake top New Jersey court

| 22 Feb 2012 | 12:46

    But not much may change in near future TRENTON — Take a close look past the smoke from the fiery political fight over Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to remove a sitting justice from the state’s highest court and it becomes clear there’s a strong possibility nothing will change in the next 22 months for the New Jersey Supreme Court. Christie announced earlier in the month that he would not reappoint Justice John Wallace, the court’s only African-American judge, when his first term expires May 20. Instead, the Republican governor said he was nominating corporate attorney Anne Patterson to take his place. Unusual move But the immediate fallout may be that Patterson’s nomination goes nowhere soon, and neither does Wallace. Although Wallace is generally considered a moderate voice on a court known nationally for its activism, Christie said he was dumping him because he wants to remake the court with more conservative justices. It was an unprecedented move — the first time in a half-century that a New Jersey governor failed to reappoint a sitting Supreme Court justice who wanted to stay. Unlike the federal system, which grants tenure immediately, New Jersey’s constitution calls for justices to be reviewed after seven years. Democrats were furious, accusing Christie of injecting politics into judicial decision-making. State Sen. President Stephen Sweeney, a staunch supporter of Wallace — who is from his district — has refused to post a hearing for Patterson. Chief Justice reacts The move also drew a rare public reaction from the normally reserved Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, who said he was “disappointed by that decision’’ because justices need to be free from possible professional consequences when weighing the merits of a case. That’s something Rabner is acutely aware of, given he’ll come up for reappointment in 2014 near the end of Christie’s first term. Rabner, who worked for Christie for years when the governor was U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, left the office to take a job with former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who nominated him to the court in 2007. Assuming that Democrats continue to stonewall Patterson’s nomination, what happens to the court in the next two years will be Rabner’s decision. After Wallace’s term officially ends this month, Rabner makes the decisions about how to fill the vacancy. He can appoint a retired justice — including Wallace — so long as they have no conflicts, or the most senior appellate court judge, currently Edwin Stern, as a temporary replacement after Wallace’s term ends. In appointing Wallace, Rabner would be sending Christie a clear sign reiterating that he believes judicial decisions on the bench should not be a litmus test for whether someone is reappointed. “This would be a rather blatant slap of the governor’s face and could sour relations between the two branches of government for years to come,” Seton Hall law professor Paul Callan said. “For that reason, I think it unlikely that the chief justice would engage in such a bold and provocative move.” But publicly expressing his disappointment at Christie’s decision to boot Wallace was also a bold move. Professional considerations Things could be more convoluted for Patterson, a partner at Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti in Morristown. She specializes in product liability and commercial litigation. A drawn-out battle leaves her twisting in the wind professionally as to what cases she can litigate without creating the appearance of a conflict of interest. “She’s in a horrible position,” Callan said. “She still has to make a living.” Once a nominee is announced, they usually refrain from taking on cases that would could create a conflict, even though there’s no formal rule specifying a nominee must do so. Drawn-out nominations have been a problems for other lawyers. After more than two years waiting for a hearing, Miguel Estrada, President Bush’s nominee to the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, withdrew his nomination in 2003. That came after Senate Democrats used a filibuster to prevent his nomination from being given a final confirmation vote on the Senate floor. Sweeney, who was sworn in as president by Wallace in January, said Patterson knew what she was getting into before the nomination was announced because he had made his position clear. “The governor didn’t have to put her name out there. He could have just declined to nominate Justice Wallace,” Sweeney said. “Instead, he chose to put her in this position. This is solely on him. “This has nothing to with her,” Sweeney added. “Honestly, the smartest thing would be for her to withdraw her name at this point.”