As vacancies persist on the state Supreme Court with no relief expected until next year at the soonest, more temporary assignments of Appellate Division judges are in gear.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner announced Tuesday that effective Oct. 1, he will elevate Judges Mary Cuff and Ariel Rodriguez to fill two empty chairs: those of Justice John Wallace Jr., whom Gov. Chris Christie declined to renominate in 2010, and Justice Virginia Long, who retired last February.
Christie’s attempt to fill both vacant seats failed this year when the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected both his nominees.
Wallace’s seat has been filled temporarily by Appellate Division Judge Dorothea Wefing, but she will reach mandatory retirement age Oct. 28. She will voluntarily step down from the court effective Oct. 1.
Article VI, section ii, paragraph 1 of the state constitution allows the chief justice to temporarily elevate senior Superior Court judges to the court “when necessary.”
In his order, Rabner cited the workload during the 2011-12 court year. The court considered 1,148 petitions for certification, resolved 596 motions, handled 115 attorney disciplinary matters and 30 judicial discipline matters, heard oral arguments in 90 cases and wrote a collective 98 opinions.
There is “no reason to anticipate a material reduction in the workload of the Court during the 2012-2013 term,” he said in the order.
After Wefing, Cuff, 65, and Rodriguez, 64, are the most senior Appellate Division judges.
Both were nominated to the Superior Court by Gov. Thomas Kean, Rodriguez in 1985 and Cuff in 1988. Rodriguez was elevated to the Appellate Division in 1993 and Cuff in 1998.
Before her nomination to the bench, Cuff had been with Secaucus’ Waters McPherson McNeill from 1986 to 1988. Before that, from 1978 to 1985, she was an assistant U.S. attorney. From 1974 to 1978, she was a deputy attorney general and special assistant to the Treasurer.
She is a 1973 graduate of Rutgers University Law School-Newark and Rosemont College.
Rodriguez was with Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. from 1984 to 1985m and had been with Iglesias & Rodriguez in Guttenberg from 1976 to 1984. Before that, from 1973 to 1976, he was an assistant Hudson County prosecutor.
Rodriguez is a 1973 graduate of Rutgers University Law School-Camden, and Rutgers University.
Though not necessary to Rabner’s decision, the assignments will serve to maintain the court’s political balance. There are currently two Democrats, Rabner and Barry Albin; two Republicans, Helen Hoens and Anne Patterson; and one independent, Jaynee LaVecchia. Rodriguez is a Republican and Cuff a Democrat.
Christie, who said early in his term that he intended to reshape what he considers to be an activist court with a liberal bent, infuriated Senate Democrats with his snub of Wallace. In retaliation, they had refused to consider a replacement until March 2012, the date Wallace would have had to retire had he been reappointed.
Christie has maintained that Democrats will turn aside any nominee that could swing the make-up to the court to reflect a Republican majority.
Democrats rejected his two nominees for the vacancies: Republican Bruce Harris, a financial lawyer who was counsel to the Florham Park office of Greenberg Traurig, would have become the first openly gay African-American on the court, and First Assistant Attorney General Phillip Kwon, an independent, would have become the first person of Asian American on the court.
The Senate Judiciary Committee found Harris did not have the requisite legal experience and objected to Kwon because of questions regarding alleged financial improprieties concerning a liquor store owned by his family.