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Diversity And NJ’s Surpreme Court [AUDIO]

Daniel Berehulak, Getty Images

More than a year after being nominated by Governor Chris Christie, Anne Patterson was finally confirmed as a State Supreme Court Justice.

The confirmation ended a stand-off between Christie and State Senate President Steve Sweeney, but another one could be in the offing by March.

Last May, Christie declined to re-nominate Justice John Wallace, an African-American instead opting to nominate Patterson. That set off a partisan stalemate because Sweeney refused to allow the Senate Judiciary Committee to consider Patterson’s nomination. Appellate Judge Edwin Stern filled in as a temporary Justice.

Just weeks apart this March, two Justices will reach the mandatory retirement age giving Christie two more vacancies to fill. Sweeney says part of his deal with the Governor prior to finally confirming Patterson was that Christie’s next nominees will reflect the state’s diverse population.

“I would expect that the Governor will probably announce some names no later than early February,” predicts Sweeney. “He would like to get them vetted through so that we have a full complement of Justices….As far as the courts go; the number-one concern for me is diversity. Our courts do not look like our state anymore. We’re the most diverse state in the nation.”

Sweeney adds, “We haven’t had any discussion about nominees. My only discussion with him (Christie) is diversity on the courts…..If they don’t reflect the needs of this state and the diversity of this state there’s going to be some problems again…..Not reflecting the diversity of the state is problematic. He has a chance to fix that and restore at least the balance with a Hispanic and an African-American.”

Over and over during the Patterson’s confirmation hearing in May Democrats asked her in a variety of different ways why a Governor who says he wants to re-shape the court nominated her. She consistently said she didn’t know and that she couldn’t speak for the Governor. She did insist, “There was no litmus test applied to me on substantive issues that might come before the court. I was not quizzed.”

Asked about her political leanings Patterson said, “I am a Republican.”

“The role of a judge is to be impartial and open-minded and to see both sides, or all sides of an issue,” said Patterson. “I absolutely believe that I can be unbiased……I will, if I have the privilege of serving on this court render decisions independently and that I would never consider an issue with respect to potential tenure.”

Christie and Sweeney announced a deal In April that allowed Patterson’s nomination to move ahead and clear the way to fill two more vacancies on the state’s top court in March 2012.

Christie said, “I want to thank Senate President Sweeney for being a willing partner in finding a path forward today on this nomination and for subsequent future nominations to the Supreme Court.”

Sweeney said, “I thank the governor for agreeing to the compromise that I had proposed in January……With two seats to fill in March 2012, I urge the governor to ensure the Court’s makeup mirrors our state’s diversity.”

Christie formally withdrew Patterson’s nomination and resubmitted it for the seat being vacated by Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto. Sweeney agreed to move swiftly to an up-or-down vote by the full Senate. New Jersey now has a female majority on the Supreme Court, and is only the fifth state in America to have that distinction. As part of the agreement, the Senate President agreed to provide the same expedited process in 2012, holding hearings for Christie’s nominees in sufficient time to have them seated by March of 2012, if confirmed.

Christie says he will 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. On March 13, 2011, Wallace, who is now in private practice, turns 70. Sweeney says he’s willing to replace him on the court then. 12 days before that, Justice Virginia Long, reaches retirement age. Sweeney is urging Christie to consider the racial makeup of the court when he makes those nominations.

Sweeney said, “My concerns have always been for the integrity of our independent judiciary and for a Court that has the informed minds it needs to independently provide equal protection under the law for all residents. New Jersey’s Supreme Court has a well-earned reputation for reasoned impartiality. I will always stand prepared to ensure that that reputation remains in place.”

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