TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey's new Republican governor has made his first move to reshape the state Supreme Court, ousting the only black justice and nominating a lawyer with long experience in private practice to take his place.
Gov. Chris Christie's announcement Monday, weeks before the end of Justice John E. Wallace's seven-year first term, drew immediate criticism from Democrats who control the Legislature. Senate President Steve Sweeney, a South Jersey Democrat like Wallace, said he would not put Christie's nominee up for a vote.
Christie selected Anne M. Patterson, who is white, as a replacement. If the Mendham Township resident is confirmed by the Senate, the court's makeup would stand with six white members and one Hispanic in a state with a black population of about 12 percent. Patterson is a registered Republican and Wallace a Democrat.
Less than four months after taking office, Christie seized the first opportunity to leave his stamp on a court he has long criticized for being too liberal. The former federal prosecutor has said the court overstepped its bounds when it legalized same-sex unions, ordered towns to build affordable housing and gave billions in aid to poor school districts.
He vowed during the gubernatorial campaign to nominate conservative justices who would interpret the law rather than legislate from the bench, as he put it.
"I do not believe that sending Justice Wallace back to the court for another 22 months would do anything to change the direction of this court," Christie said Monday. "In fact, I believe it would just reinforce the direction the court has gone in."
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner cautioned that the move could inject politics into judicial decision-making.
"Citizens who turn to the courts for relief are entitled to have their cases resolved by impartial judges who focus only on the evenhanded pursuit of justice," Rabner, a Democrat appointed by former Gov. Jon Corzine, said in a statement to justices and judges that was released to the media. "Litigants should never have to worry that a judge may be more concerned about how a decision could affect his or her reappointment."
Even former Republican Gov. Tom Kean, a mentor to Christie, reappointed Chief Justice Robert Wilentz in 1986 despite disagreeing with many of his decisions, going so far as to call one "communistic."
Sweeney described Wallace as "one of the classiest people I've ever met," and said he does not deserve "to go down in history as the first justice ever not to be reappointed."
"I can't in good conscience — irregardless of the individual — put that person up for a vote," Sweeney said. "If we move his nominee, we're saying no one's going to stand up for an independent court."
The 68-year-old Wallace had been known as a centrist.
In a unanimous decision in 2006 that gay couples must receive treatment equal to that of married heterosexual couples, Wallace was one of four judges who stopped short of saying that gay couples had to have the right to marry to attain that equality. Of the seven justices, he was the only one who did not ask questions during arguments on the matter.
"I think it's unfortunate that we no longer have an African-American on the court. I think it's a vast step backward and an insult to African-Americans," said Frank Askin, a professor at the Rutgers School of Law.
This is the first time since the state Constitution went into effect in 1947 that a New Jersey governor has chosen not to reappoint a justice who has completed an initial seven-year term.
Wallace, who was appointed by former Gov. James McGreevey, would have had to retire upon reaching age 70 on March 13, 2012, even if he had been reappointed.
Christie said last week that his consideration of Wallace was not purely political. However, on Monday, he said Patterson would rebalance the court so it contained an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. The current mix is four Democrats, two Republicans and one unaffiliated justice.
Christie's nominee faces an uncertain confirmation path in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, the first African-American woman to lead the state Assembly, called the decision "disappointing."
"Justice Wallace admirably served our state from the bench for more than 25 years, displaying a keen intellect and an unrelenting respect for civil rights and the law that has never been questioned by impartial observers," Oliver said.
In the 51-year-old Patterson, Christie has chosen a resident of his own town and someone who has spent much of her career in corporate litigation. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Cornell Law School.
The governor will get three more Supreme Court picks during his first term, the next one coming in April when the court's only Hispanic justice is up for reappointment.
Associated Press writers Beth DeFalco and Geoff Mulvihill contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.