The path Anne Patterson is taking to the State’s highest Court can be confusing to most non-judicial scholars. Let’s recap:
The New Jersey Supreme Court is made up of 7 justices, compared to 9 on the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices are initially nominated by the Governor and are referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration. Once the State Senate bestows its blessing on the nominee, the Justice serves for an initial term of seven years.
Following the seven year term, the Governor decides whether to nominate the Justice for tenure. All justices must retire by age 70, if not sooner.
Tradition calls for three justices of each party to occupy the bench, with the seventh justice to be of the Governor’s party.
The road less traveled
Approximately one year ago this week, Governor Christie bucked tradition by choosing not to appoint Justice John Wallace for lifetime tenure – a tenure that would last two years, until he reached the mandatory retirement age. Governors have traditionally nominated Justices for lifetime appointment despite the Justice’s party affiliation, which some argue is necessary so Justices aren’t pressured to take political conditions into their decisions on the Court. Others argue that it is the Governor’s right to base lifetime tenure on ideology as well as moral integrity. Governor Christie then announced his intention to appoint Anne Patterson, a Republican, to the Supreme Court.
This is where Patterson’s path to the high court becomes unique. In response to the bucking of tradition, Senate President Steve Sweeney declared that the Democratically-controlled legislature would not hold a hearing on Anne Patterson’s nomination until Wallace’s lifetime term would have ended in 2012. The Governor did not budge on his decision not to nominate Wallace.
This left a vacant seat on the court. In keeping with precedent, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner appointed appellate judge Edward Stern as a temporary justice. Chief Justices have traditionally nominated the senior appellate judge to temporarily fill a vacancy on the high court when one occurs.
Not everyone was happy. Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto declared in December, via a Court decision, that he would abstain from the Court’s decisions in protest because he did not believe Rabner did not have the authority to appoint a temporary justice. Rivera-Soto later modified his stance, saying he would indeed vote on cases where Stern's vote did not affect the outcome. Calls for Rivera-Soto’s immediate resignation grew louder from Senate Democrats and newspaper editorial boards. A few weeks later, he informed Governor Christie that he would not seek renomination when his term ends this September.
Fast-forward to this week. With the possibility of two vacancies on the Supreme Court this fall looming, Governor Christie and Senate President Sweeney announced that they reached an agreement: The Senate Judiciary Committee would consider Anne Patterson’s nomination by the end of May – to the seat about to be vacated by Justice Rivera-Soto, not Justice Wallace.
Senate Judiciary Committee
Approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee is the next step in this process. The Committee, headed by Senator Nick Scutari (D-Union) is made up of a total of eight Democrats. There are five Republicans on the Committee.
Senator Ray Lesniak (D-Union) said that he intends to vote no. Senators Scutari and Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Union) have released statements.
LRW will keep you informed as the hearing unfolds.