On December 10, 2010, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto (Republican) issued two opinions in which he advised that he will not participate in the Court’s proceedings while a temporarily assigned Appellate Division Judge sits on the Court. The controversy stems from Governor Chris Christie’s (Republican) refusal to renominate Justice John Wallace (Democrat) to the Court. Under the New Jersey Constitution, Supreme Court Justices initially serve a seven-year term. After that term expires, the Governor may then renominate the Justice for tenure, allowing the Justice to serve until the mandatory retirement age of 70.
Justice Wallace’s seven-year term was to end on May 20, 2010. However, May 3, 2010, Governor Christie announced that he would not renominate Justice Wallace. This position was consistent with Governor Christie’s campaign pledge to “reshape” the Supreme Court. In not renominating Justice Wallace, it was the first time in the history of New Jersey’s modern constitution (63 years) that a governor refused to renominate a sitting Justice. Normally, as a matter of course, governors would renominate a sitting Justice even if that Justice was from an opposing political party.
After announcing that Justice Wallace would not be renominated, Governor Christie nominated Anne Patterson (democrat) fill the seat being vacated by Wallace. The democratically controlled Senate in turn blocked the nomination of Ms. Patterson. This in turn created a vacancy on the court. Accordingly, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner temporarily appointed Judge Edwin Stern (the senior most Appellate Division Judge) to fill the vacancy.
Despite previously participating in cases with Judge Stern, Justice Rivera-Soto announced on December 10th that he was abstaining from future participation in cases before the Court while Judge Stern sat on the bench. In his abstaining opinion, Justice Rivera-Soto maintained that it is a violation of the State Constitution to temporarily appoint a judge to the Court simply to fill a vacant seat instead of doing so to maintain a quorum (which is 5 Justices). Chief Justice Rabner responded to Justice Rivera-Soto’s opinion by asserting that it is constitutionally permissible to temporarily appoint Judge Stern to the Court. He further added that Justice Rivera-Soto has no basis for refusing to participate in voting and writing decisions and is failing to fulfill his obligation as a Justice of the Supreme Court.
In the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see how the Executive and Legislative Branch respond to Justice Rivera-Soto’s decision to abstain from future court proceedings. Within the Legislative Branch, there has been discussions concerning whether Justice Rivera-Soto should be impeached for refusing to participate.
— Erik Anderson, Esq.
Reardon Anderson represents the interests of businesses, insurance companies and individuals throughout New Jersey and the metropolitan New York City area. Please visit our website at http://reardonanderson.com to learn more about our firm.