NJ officials reach deal to fill state court seats

By Geoff Mulvihill

Associated Press

Published: Monday, May 2 2011 11:55 a.m. MDT

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, right, along with Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, D-West Deptford, left, announce a deal on how to fill the vacant seats on the state Supreme Court during a news conference at the State House in Trenton, N.J., Monday, May 2, 2011.

Rich Schultz, Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. — A year after she was nominated to become a justice on New Jersey's state Supreme Court, Anne Patterson is finally going to get a hearing before the state Senate.

Gov. Chris Christie and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney announced a deal Monday that would allow her nomination to move ahead and aim to fill two more vacancies on the state's top court in March 2012.

Sweeney had been blocking the nomination, saying Christie was threatening the independence of the judiciary. And Christie was criticizing Sweeney, a Democrat, for trying to hijack the judge-nominating process.

But they said they put their differences aside to reach a compromise.

"The health of the Supreme Court and the health of our system is more important than any one of us getting our way on this issue," Christie said.

It began May 3, 2010, when Christie announced that he would not nominate Justice John Wallace to continue serving on the court.

Christie, a Republican, has said repeatedly since then that he saw getting rid of Wallace, a moderate by the standards of the court and its only black member, as the first step toward remaking a court that conservatives say meddles too much in affairs that should be handled by lawmakers and governors.

The court has mandated that towns provide housing affordable to low-income people, forced the state to pay billions to subsidize schools in the state's poorest cities and given gay couples the same legal protections as married men and women.

It was a major break from tradition. Since the state's current constitution was adopted in 1947, every other justice who completed an initial seven-year term and wanted to continue serving was nominated to receive tenure until the mandatory retirement age of 70.

What's more, Christie's first opportunity to change the court came in the form of Wallace, a friend of Sweeney's.

Sweeney would not allow a hearing for Patterson, a corporate lawyer.

Earlier this year, a second justice, Roberto Rivera-Soto, said he did not want to serve after his initial term ended on Sept. 1.

At the time, Sweeney suggested that Patterson be nominated to serve that seat instead of Wallace's. But until Monday, Christie wouldn't budge.

He said he changed his mind in part because the version of the seven-member court that heard major school funding arguments included only four members that had been nominated by a governor and confirmed by a governor.

In that case, two justices recused themselves. A third who will be involved in the decision is a lower-court judge who was called up to the state's top court last year by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to fill Wallace's seat.

Sweeney said Monday that Patterson will get a hearing this month.

And Christie said he would submit two more nominations for justices in time for them to be confirmed before March 2012. If all goes according to the agreement, three of the seven members of the court then will be Christie nominees.

In that month, Wallace, who is now in private practice, turns 70. Sweeney said he's willing to replace him on the court then. The same month, another justice, Virginia Long, reaches retirement age.

Sweeney said he's urging Christie to consider the racial makeup of the court when he makes those nominations.

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