Gov. Christine Todd Whitman resigned in February 2001 to join President George W. Bush’s cabinet as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Senate President Donald DiFrancesco succeeded her as governor, but no seats on the New Jersey Supreme Court opened up during his nearly one-year stint as the state’s chief executive.
James E. McGreevey, elected governor in 2001, had anticipated two – or three, depending on how you view it – Supreme Court appointments during his first term.
Associate Justices Gary Stein and James Coleman were set to reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 2003.
But Stein left the top court in 2002, one year early, creating an opportunity for McGreevey to make his first top court pick.
It was clear the time that after 17 years on the bench – and three on Gov. Tom Kean’s senior staff – Stein was ready to monetize his government service. In announcing his retirement, Stein told a reporter: “I suspect there is a market for retired justices.”
(The retired Justice, who turns 87 this week, has been intensively lobbying to be a tie-breaker on the New Jersey Legislative Reapportionment Commission next year).
The front-runner for the seat was Barry Albin, partner at Wilentz, Goldman and Spitzer. The firm had been founded by old-time Middlesex County Democratic boss David Wilentz, the father of former Chief Justice Robert Wilentz. The firm had been colossal benefactors of McGreevey’s political career and Albin was a close friend.
Donald Scarinci, the head of a powerful North Jersey law firm, was also on a short list.
McGreevey had agreed to return to the Hughes Compact that allowed the New Jersey State Bar Association to review judicial candidates. Whitman had cancelled the seal after they rated one of her Supreme Court nominees, Peter Verniero, as unqualified.
There was some discussion of naming a Republican to replace Stein, who had been active in Bergen County GOP politics. That option might have allowed McGreevey to drop Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, also a Republican, and replace her with a Democrat.
Four Republican names were being bandied around at that point: former Attorney General Cary Edwards; and State Sens. Bill Gormley (R-Margate), John Matheussen (R-Washington Township), and Robert Martin (R-Morris Plains).
No political party controlled a majority of the State Senate after the 2001 election left Democrats and Republicans with 20 Senate seats each. Democrats thought that by picking Gormley or Matheussen for the Supreme Court, it would provide South Jersey with their first top court seat since Vincent Haneman retired in 1971 – and more importantly, give Democrats a shot at taking control of the upper House in a 2002 special election.
As expected, McGreevey chose the 51-year-old Albin. By doing so, he signaled that he intended to renominate Poritz and continue a tradition of allowing sitting justices to obtain tenure after seven years, as long as they had committed to major infraction.
When Coleman, the only black on the Supreme Court, retired in 2003, McGreevey chose to nominate another black justice – and return a seat to South Jersey after 32 years.
McGreevey faced some pressure to appoint Farber, an Afro-Cuban who had served in Gov. Jim Florio’s cabinet as state Public Advocate. She would have been both the first Hispanic Justice and the first black woman on the court.
But Farber had failed to pay parking tickets, giving McGreevey an excuse to go in a different direction.
His pick was 61-year-old Appellate Court Judge John E. Wallace, Jr. who had spent 18 years on the bench and was resident of Gloucester County. Wallace had been short-listed by Whitman for Justice Daniel O’Hern’s seat four years earlier.
McGreevey’s third opportunity came in 2004, when embattled Associate Justice Peter Verniero chose step down after serving just five of his seven-year term.
Verniero became ensnared in the New Jersey State Police racial profiling sandal after allegations that troopers systematically stopped and searched black drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike. The State Police Superintendent had reported it to Verniero, then the state Attorney General.
He was just barely confirmed by the State Senate.
In 2001, the Senate Judiciary Committee launched an investigation into racial profiling. Verniero spent more than a dozen hours testifying. Several Senators accused him of misleading the committee during his own confirmation hearing.
DiFrancesco, a Republican, called for his resignation. The State Senate called for his impeachment. The Assembly Speaker, Jack Collins, declined to initiate impeachment proceedings, suggesting that the Senate had the option of asking the Mercer County Prosecutor to look at potential perjury charges.
During the gubernatorial campaign that year. McGreevey said he would not reappoint Verniero for a tenured term on the Supreme Court if he won.
He lost the support of many Republicans in 2002 after Bob Torricelli withdrew from the U.S. Senate race after the deadline to replace candidates on the ballot had passed. Verniero supported a move to switch Torricelli for Frank Lautenberg, something that may have cost Republicans a seat in the United States Senate.
When he was nominated to the bench, Whitman had viewed Verniero as potentially being able to hold the seat for 30 years.
McGreevey used the Verniero seat as an opportunity to make history and nominated Roberto Rivera-Soto, a 50-year-old casino lawyer and a South Jersey Republican, as the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice.
Ariel Rodriguez, a Cuban-American appellate court judge from Hudson County, had also been on McGreevey’s short-list.
No Supreme Court seats came up during Gov. Richard Codey’s term in office, between McGreevey’s 2004 resignation and Gov. Jon Corzine taking office in 2006.
The winner of the 2005 gubernatorial race was going to name a new Chief Justice in their first year as governor, when Poritz reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in October 2006
Corzine decided to elevate Associate Justice James Zazzali to serve as Chief Justice for what would be a relatively short tenure. Zazzali was 69 and would be forced into retirement last then eight months later.
Since Zazzali, a Democrat who served as Attorney General under Gov. Brendan Byrne, was replacing Poritz, a registered Republican, Corzine needed to choose a Republican to fill Zazzali’s Associate Justice post.
Corzine’s pick was Helen Hoens, a 52-year-old appellate court judge who had first been named to the bench by Whitman in 1994.
By picking Hoens, Corzine maintained the gender balance of the Supreme Court that would have resulted in one less woman as a result of Zazzali replacing Poritz.
The other Republicans Corzine was reportedly considering – Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance (R-Clinton Township), former Attorney General John Farmer, Jr., Martin, and Rodriguez.
Zazzali’ short stint worked well for his eventual successor, Stuart Rabner.
Rabner had a meteoric rise in state politics came after a stint in the U.S. Attorney’s office, some of it under Chris Christie.
Corzine had met Rabner at an event and was impressed enough with him to offer him the position of chief counsel after he was elected governor.
Five months into the Corzine administration, Farber resigned as attorney general after a “do you now who I am?” incident involving Fairview police stopping her boyfriend. Driven by a state trooper, Farber responded to the scene and sought special treatment.
Rabner replaced Farber as attorney general and held that post for eight months before Corzine nominated him succeed Zazzali as Chief Justice.
Two Essex County senators, Nia Gill (D-Montclair) and Ronald Rice (D-Newark), initially used senatorial courtesy to block the 46-year-old Rabner. Corzine convinced both sign off and Rabner was confirmed by a 36-1 vote two weeks after his nomination. Gill voted against him.
Next: The Christie Court