TRENTON - A year of political fireworks leading up to the confirmation hearing of Gov. Christie's first Supreme Court nominee ended in praise and mostly friendly questioning before the Senate Judiciary Committee gave its approval 11 to 1 today.
The hearing for Anne Patterson lasted 2 ½ hours but contained none of the confrontational atmosphere expected for a nominee whose progress has been stalled for months by Democrats angry with Christie's efforts to remake the court.
The Republican governor picked the Morris County lawyer in May 2010 to replace John Wallace, a justice whom Christie decided to deny tenure after seven years over concerns that he and the top court were legislating from the bench. Democrats that control the Legislature charged that Christie was infringing on the judiciary's independence and refused to hold a hearing for Patterson.
The standoff only ended this month, when Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) arrived at a compromise and scheduled a hearing.
A registered Republican, Patterson said today that she has not been involved in politics, and was not subjected to any "political litmus test" in her conversations with the Christie administration leading up to the nomination.
Patterson said that a judge's role is to apply the law, and that justices must approach cases without regard for politics and personal views on governmental policies.
She repeatedly expressed the view that only the legislative and executive branches should set policy.
But one week after the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the state to spend $500 million more on education, Patterson sidestepped questions from Democratic lawmakers on whether she approved of the decision or agreed with the governor's claim that the court is activist.
Patterson, 52, has represented major corporations, including those in the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, during her nearly three decades as an attorney.
In response to questioning from Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D, Union) on whether she could be neutral in cases with large corporations, Patterson said the role of an advocate speaking on behalf of a client is "entirely different than that of a judge" charged with being impartial and open-minded.
"I absolutely believe that I can be unbiased," she said.
Her nomination will have to be approved by the full Senate, and Scutari said after the hearing that he expects broad support for Patterson.
The lone "no" vote was cast by Senator Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), who has voiced concern that Patterson's confirmation will leave the court with no representation from racial minorities.
Wallace is African American and departing Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto, whom Patterson is set to replace under the deal reached by Christie and Sweeney, is Hispanic.
Still, the addition of Patterson, who is white, would give the court a female majority.