Gov. Christie's attempt to overhaul the New Jersey Supreme Court will finally get under way Tuesday, when confirmation hearings begin for a North Jersey corporate lawyer he nominated to the bench more than a year ago.
For Christie, Anne M. Patterson's audience with the state Senate Judiciary Committee couldn't happen soon enough. Last week, the court ruled in favor of additional funding for 31 poor school districts, sending the Republican governor what he called an unauthorized "invoice" for $500 million.
A review of Patterson's history as a lawyer indicates that the governor, who has fashioned himself as a probusiness conservative who opposes activist judges he says overstep their bounds, may have found a kindred spirit.
At the Morristown, N.J., firm Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti, Patterson has defended the manufacturers of guns, tobacco, lead paint, and pharmaceuticals against allegations that their products have harmed people and communities. Her work in product and corporate liability has helped establish legal precedents that could protect corporations in the future.
"She certainly understands the concerns of business as they relate to the law," said Marcus Rayner, executive director of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance. That could signal a new approach in a state that some believe has favored plaintiffs in lawsuits against corporations.
Patterson represented R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. after relatives of a 79-year-old woman killed in a house fire blamed a defective cigarette. She represented Abbott Laboratories when it was sued by someone infected with HIV from a transfusion of blood tested with an Abbott product that the company allegedly knew was faulty.
And when Camden, Collingswood, and Gloucester City joined the New Jersey public advocate in suing manufacturers because of illnesses caused by their lead paint, Patterson defended DuPont, one of the companies named.
Patterson won all of those cases, and her client list has some concerned about her potential role as a jurist.
"I'm afraid we're going to see a shift where the court will side with corporate power over government power, and that will have a big impact over citizens' rights," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
Others who have worked with, and against, Patterson caution against a rush to judgment.
"She's a commercial litigator. . . . That's the type of clients she gets," said Ronald Chen, a vice dean at Rutgers Law School in Newark who was the public advocate in the lead-paint case.
"Her legal career has been a fairly traditional course: graduate from Cornell [Law], associate from one of the most upstanding firms in New Jersey. You can call it traditional, establishment. There's nothing wrong with it. It's a very honorable course."
Patterson, 52, who did not return a call for comment, as is typical of nominees, is a Republican neighbor of Christie's in upscale Mendham Township, Morris County.
State records show she has contributed nearly $20,000 to New Jersey Republicans since 1998, although she never gave directly to Christie. She has worked in the state Attorney General's Office, but her time as a corporate lawyer might provide the most insight into her possible role on the court.
In the 1990s, more than 40 cities and counties sued gun manufacturers, arguing that the companies had flooded the market with weapons they knew would fall into criminals' hands.
Camden County said firearms manufacturers had created a public nuisance, and it sought damages for the costs related to gun crimes. More than 12 people represented the companies in federal appeals court in 2001, including Patterson, an attorney for Colt's Manufacturing. The companies were victorious.
At the Judiciary Committee hearing, senators should go through every state gun law and ask if Patterson plans to invalidate them, said David Kairys, the Temple law professor who began the effort against gun companies.
"You can't ascribe clients' actions to their lawyers," he said. But it is "fair game to ask, 'Do you support the position in those cases that the manufacturers took: that the Second Amendment forbids almost all regulation?' "
Because New Jersey has some of the country's strongest gun laws, "I wouldn't accept a dodge on that," Kairys said. "A lot of those lawyers, not all of them, are rather ideologically extreme."
Bryan Miller of Ceasefire NJ, an antigun group, said he worries that the gun lobby, sensing a more friendly Supreme Court if Patterson were a judge, might bring suit to overturn laws such as the one that limits handgun purchases to one a month.
Patterson did lose one of her earliest cases. When a group known as the New Jersey Coalition Against War in the Middle East was blocked from distributing leaflets in malls during the first Gulf War, it sued. Patterson represented two malls, including the Cherry Hill Mall, at trial in 1991.
The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the malls, saying that free speech must be protected in the "new downtowns."
"I had great difficulty with most of the lawyers on the other side. They didn't want to give me the time of day," said Frank Askin, a Rutgers law professor who represented the antiwar advocates. "But Anne Patterson was very collegial, highly professional."
The significance of Patterson's appointment, which would have to be approved by the state Senate, could be great. In a state where the governor often butts heads with the Legislature, controlled by Democrats, the Supreme Court could decide issues ranging from affordable housing to school funding.
There already is opposition to Patterson unrelated to her resumé. A coalition of groups representing Latinos and blacks has noted that the coming departure of Justice Roberto A. Rivera-Soto, who is Hispanic - which follows Christie's refusal to reappoint Justice John Wallace Jr., who is black - will make for an all-white bench for the first time since the early 1990s.
In a state with a minority population of about 40 percent, "that's pretty disgraceful," said Frank Argote-Freyre, president of the Latino Action Alliance.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union) said he planned to vote against Patterson because of the diversity issue and because he is angry that Christie booted Wallace, who the governor claimed was part of a liberal court that had taken the state in a wrong direction.
"He sent a message to all the sitting judges: Beware of how you decide cases, because I'm looking at you," Lesniak said.
Patterson's nomination has been in limbo since May 2010. Her hearing was scheduled only after Christie and the Democrats reached a deal this month.
When he nominated Patterson, Christie - who could appoint or extend the term of four judges on the seven-member panel in his first term - said he was fulfilling a vow "to turn the court away from its history of using legal precedent to set social and tax policies. . . . [Patterson] understands at a principled level what it means to be a member of a coequal branch of government, with its powers and its limitations."