Wallace says his goodbyes

John E. Wallace Jr. said his goodbyes during his final appearance on the bench as a Supreme Court Justice Monday morning.

Wallace, whose initial seven-year term ends May 20, appeared Monday for a rules committee hearing, a routine hearing regarding the rules that govern the day to day operations of the court.

New Jersey Judiciary spokeswoman Winnie Comfort said that following a tradition for a judge’s last day on the bench, “the members of the court said nice things about how they worked with them and he said nice things about having worked with them.”

Also according to tradition, as with other retired justices, Wallace’s name will continue to appear on supreme court cases for the next few months as opinions are delivered for cases that were heard prior to Wallace’s last day.

“We’ll see him finish out the work of the court from this term,” Comfort said.

Gov. Christie made waves when he announced he wanted to replace Wallace instead of reappointing him to the bench. Wallace, 68, of Sewell, is the first sitting Supreme Court Justice seeking reappointment to fail to receive it under the current state constitution, although one supreme court justice who was expected to face a difficult confirmation process declined to seek reappointment.

Christie says that Wallace is a part of an activist Supreme Court that has legislated from the bench, although the governor has declined to name any specific decisions of Wallace’s that he disagrees with.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), an ally of Wallace’s, has said he will not hold confirmation hearings in the Senate for Christie’s pick to replace Wallace, attorney Anne M. Patterson. Sweeney and other Wallace supporters argue that by failing to reappoint Wallace, Christie is politicizing the state’s highest court.
Wallace is the only African-American on the supreme court and one of two justices from South Jersey.

Last week, eight retired state supreme court justices issued a statement in support of Wallace.
“No Governor before now has sought to control the Third Branch of government through the reappointment process,” the statement read. “We regret the Governor’s decision not to reappoint Justice Wallace and urge the Governor to reconsider the effect of such a decision on judicial independence.”

If Wallace is not replaced, it will be up to Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to decide whether and how to fill the vacancy. Rabner could leave the position empty or ask the most senior appellate court judge or a retired justice to serve temporarily, which means Wallace could theoretically be appointed to fill the vacancy created by his absence.

Senator Joseph Kyrillos (R., Monmouth), who is close to Christie, said that if people believe judges should serve for life - or until the mandatory retirement age of 70 - they should try to change the state constitution.

Under the constitution, justices are appointed for an initial seven-year term, after which, if they are reappointed, they can serve until they turn 70.

“I think the Senate has a responsibility, a constitutional obligation to consider the governor’s nominees,” Kyrillos said. “They can vote them down. But the executive branch and the nominee is entitled to an up or down vote.”

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