Most on N.J. judicial panel quit over Christie move

All seven members of an advisory panel charged with reviewing nominations to New Jersey's Superior Court resigned Wednesday, with six saying they objected to Gov. Christie's decision not to renominate Justice John Wallace Jr. to the state Supreme Court.

The members, all appointed by former Gov. Jon S. Corzine, had letters hand-delivered to Christie's office.

"The panel has understood a judge serving honorably and effectively, with competence and integrity, will achieve tenure in judicial office," states one letter signed by six of the members. "This understanding is supported by the intent of the framers of our constitution and is firmly grounded in our traditions and history, and has been followed consistently for over 60 years by all governors of both political parties."

"You have expressed publicly a profoundly different view of the governor's appointive responsibilities," the letter continues. "This was exemplified by your actions and remarks in refusing to reappoint Justice John Wallace to the Supreme Court, a jurist who indisputably exemplified all the qualifications for honorable judicial services. It is a view that is inconsistent with an independent judiciary.

"Because of our abiding commitment to the independence of the judiciary, we cannot in good conscience continue to serve on the Judiciary Advisory Panel."

The six members were retired state Supreme Court justices James H. Coleman and Stewart Pollock, the cochairmen, and Alan B. Handler and Deborah T. Poritz; a lawyer in private practice, Carlos G. Ortiz; and a university professor, Susan Lederman.

The seventh, retired Appellate Division judge Harold B. Wells III, a Republican, sent a brief, separate letter saying he had resigned for "personal reasons."

Coleman declined to comment beyond the letter, saying, "We were striving mightily to put enough information in the letter to make everyone understand."

Michael Drewniak, Christie's spokesman, said, "The governor thanks the advisory panel members for their service, and we expect to be making appointments to fill those vacancies in short order. The members who resigned are entitled to their opinions, but not everyone shares their views, including others in the judiciary and legal community who recognize the governor's constitutional prerogative and authority in this regard."

Christie, a former U.S. attorney, set off a firestorm when he announced in May that he did not plan to renominate Wallace. Critics said the move jeopardized the independence of the judiciary, while supporters praised the Republican governor for beginning to reclaim the Supreme Court. Christie should have the chance to replace at least three other justices in the next 31/2 years.

Wallace, 68, of Sewell, was the only African American and one of only two South Jerseyans on the court. Before his appointment in 2003, the Harvard Law School graduate served as an appellate judge, a Superior Court judge, and a municipal judge in Washington Township.

He became the first justice seeking reappointment under the current state constitution to fail to receive tenure.

Wallace's initial seven-year appointment ended May 20. He would have faced mandatory retirement at age 70 anyway, so Christie would have had another opportunity to replace him.

Wallace, a Democrat, was not known for being particularly liberal, but Christie said Wallace had been part of an activist, liberal court that had taken the state in the wrong direction.

Christie nominated Republican Anne M. Patterson, a corporate litigator from Morris County who served as a deputy attorney general in New Jersey, to replace Wallace.

The Senate has the power to reject the nomination, and Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D., Gloucester) has said he will not allow hearings on Patterson's nomination.

Christie has said that under the state constitution, the governor has the right not to reappoint justices to the Supreme Court, and that the Senate has an obligation to provide its advice and consent on the governor's nominees.

Corzine, a Democrat, created the Judiciary Advisory Panel with an executive order in 2006 to review the background and qualifications of lawyers nominated to Superior Court.

The members are just the latest to criticize Christie's decision not to renominate Wallace. Previously, eight retired justices issued a statement in support of Wallace. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner issued a strongly worded statement to the current justices and judges in New Jersey commending Wallace for his service and saying the delegates of the Constitutional Convention of 1947 "understood the enduring value of having judges decide cases not with an eye toward reappointment but by fairly and honestly applying the law to the facts, free from any political pressures or influence."

 


Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com.