TRENTON - Leading New Jersey Democrats called Friday for the resignation of a Supreme Court justice who says he will not participate in court decisions as long as a temporary judge is on the bench.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Judiciary Chairman Nicholas P. Scutari said Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto was in contempt of the law and should step down immediately.
Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said Rivera-Soto's conduct "officially cements his place as the worst and most ethically challenged justice in the history of the modern judiciary."
Rivera-Soto, of Haddonfield, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Justices aired their views on the court's composition in two opinions published Friday in cases unrelated to the court.
In them, Rivera-Soto objected to Justice Edwin Stern's participation in decisions when the other justices are present. Rivera-Soto vowed to abstain from all decisions as long as Stern takes part in deliberations and rulings.
Four justices, including Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, disagreed. Helen Hoens said she saw flaws in each side's argument.
Rabner appointed Stern to fill in as the seventh member of the court after Gov. Christie declined to reappoint John Wallace in May. Christie said at the time that he wanted to remake the court with more conservative justices.
Democrats were incensed, many asking why Christie would remove a moderate who was the court's only black member. The Senate Judiciary Committee has refused to give a hearing to Christie's nominee, Anne Patterson, a lawyer and fellow Mendham Township resident.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said this issue should never have arisen.
"The governor made a nomination seven months ago - as was his constitutional duty and prerogative - of a highly qualified individual to be a full-fledged justice on the Supreme Court," Drewniak said. "It's time now for the Senate president to meet his constitutional obligation and call for a hearing for Anne Patterson to become a member of the court. That is effectively what Sen. Sweeney argued for today in criticizing the current conflict."
Rivera-Soto's renomination comes up in September, the second that will be made by New Jersey's first Republican governor in eight years. The Supreme Court censured Rivera-Soto in 2008 for inappropriate conduct after he acknowledged using the weight of his office while intervening in a dispute between his son and another teenager.
Scutari (D., Union) was the first to call on Rivera-Soto to resign if he was going to continue to refuse to decide cases.
"I think he should step down if he's going to be derelict in his duties," Scutari said.
Scutari said that if Rivera-Soto refuses to issue opinions or vacate the bench, he would consider impeachment proceedings.
Rivera-Soto maintains that Stern's participation in the two opinions is unconstitutional because he was not needed for the court to have a full complement of jurists. He said the seating of Stern when there was already a quorum of five violated the state constitution's "when necessary" provision for fill-ins.
But Rabner said Stern's temporary assignment was permitted by the constitution and "is consistent with more than 800 similar assignments made by chief justices over the course of four decades."
"The current assignment is necessary to address the court's substantial workload and meet the needs of the public," he wrote.
In the second case, Rabner wrote that the question of temporary appointments had been settled. Three justices wrote a concurring opinion that a justice has no right to defy the court even if he disagrees with a decision of the majority.
"It is one thing to dissent from an opinion of the majority; it is another to refuse to participate - to vote - in matters before the court," Rabner wrote. "Under our system of law, holding a contrary view about a settled legal issue is not a basis for abstaining."
Rivera-Soto said he would continue to abstain.