Today, Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto notified Governor Christie that he did not wish to be reappointed to the Supreme Court when his seven-year initial term ends later this year. Justice Rivera-Soto expressed the wish to return to his first love: the private practice of law. Governor Christie accepted Justice Rivera-Soto’s wishes, and stated that he would not make a nomination to fill Justice Rivera-Soto’s seat until after the State Senate holds a hearing on Anne Patterson, Governor Christie’s nominee to fill the seat that had been occupied by Justice John Wallace, whom Governor Christie did not reappoint.
If Governor Christie holds to that vow, and if the Senate sticks to its decision not to hold a hearing on Anne Patterson until March 2012, when Justice Wallace would turn 70, there will be another vacant seat on the Court in September 2011. Chief Justice Rabner named Judge Edwin Stern to fill the Wallace seat. In June 2011, Judge Stern will turn 70 and would have to vacate the seat. Judge Dorothea O’C. Wefing is the next most senior Appellate Division judge and would presumably replace Judge Stern. If Justice Rivera-Soto’s seat remains vacant, the Chief Justice could then name the next most senior Appellate Division judge, Judge Ariel Rodriguez, to fill that seat. It would be ironic if Justice Rivera-Soto’s actions lead to two Appellate Division judges on the Court at the same time, given Justice Rivera-Soto’s vehement opposition to having one seat filled by Judge Stern.
The presence of two Appellate Division judges on the Court would not be unprecedented. The same thing occurred for a period during the 1970’s,
It remains to be seen whether there will be a compromise that will allow all seven seats to be filled by Justices nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate, or whether one or even two seats will be occupied by temporarily elevated Appellate Division judges. Meanwhile, Justice Rivera-Soto’s departure will mean that there are no minority Justices, and no Justices from South Jersey, on the Court.