Martin C. Daks and Andrew Kitchenman • NJBiz

Nominee faces tough fight amid political feud

The legal community and business advocates were generally positive about the nomination of Anne M. Patterson’s to the state Supreme Court although  a political standoff has placed her appointment in jeopardy.

Patterson’s background heading the products liability practice for Morristown-based Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland Perretti LLP would bring a unique perspective to the state Supreme Court, according to legal observers.

“Right now, New Jersey is viewed as being overly friendly to plaintiffs in business liability cases,” said Michael R. McDonald, a director in the business and commercial litigation department at the Newark law firm Gibbons PC. “The state’s overly liberal statutes appear to attract lawyers around the country to sue companies in New Jersey regardless of where the alleged injury actually occurred.”

The appointment of Patterson could create an expectation that the court would be better balanced, McDonald said.

“But at this point it’s just speculation,” he added. “I can’t predict where she’ll come down on specific matters. But I think her confirmation would definitely offer the expectation of a more business-friendly court.”

A New Jersey Chamber of Commerce official was pleased at the prospect of a business lawyer on the state Supreme Court.

“Business community members have advised us that they’re concerned about key issues like tort reform and frivolous lawsuits,” said Michael Egenton, a Chamber senior vice president. “Patterson’s appointment would likely make for a court that’s more fair and balanced, and that has an effect on businesses’ bottom line. We would likely still face issues in the state Legislature, but if Patterson is confirmed, it would be a big step forward.”

But others were less sure of an impact.

“New Jersey certainly has a reputation of not being very friendly to businesses, but I’m not sure if the state Supreme Court plays much of a role in that,” said Deirdre R. Wheatley-Liss, a shareholder with Parsippany-based Fein, Such, Kahn & Shepard PC who focuses on business-law matters.

Marcus Rayner
, executive director of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance, said the court has a mixed record on business issues. “Its decisions interpret, and sometimes make, law that the businesses in this state have to operate under,” he said. “And to the extent those laws are predictable for business, consistent with the law in other states, and fair, the court can attract and retain business in the state. To the extent they issue unpredictable precedents and attract abusive litigation that is different than other states, the court can chase business out of the state.”

Rayner said Patterson is extremely qualified and has extensive experience.

“I think her background speaks for itself,” Rayner said. “She’s certainly familiar with the issues important to business.”

Patterson has represented a variety of corporate clients, including successful defenses of R.J. Reynolds, in a case over a woman who was injured in a fire after a cigarette wasn’t extinguished, and Abbott Laboratories, in a case where a woman contracted HIV from a transfusion that had been checked using a test developed by Abbott. In both cases,  state courts sided with the businesses.

Most justices are career judges, and only two joined the court directly from a law firm: Barry T. Albin from Woodbridge-based Wilentz, Goldman and Spitzer and Roberto A. Rivera-Soto from Fox Rothschild in Atlantic City, Princeton and Roseland.

Patterson has been drawn into a battle between Gov. Chris Christie and Senate Democrats over outgoing Justice John E. Wallace Jr. The Democrats accuse Christie of politicizing the court by not re-nominating Wallace, who has to retire in 22 months when he turns 70. It is the first time that a governor has decided against re-nominating a judge after their initial seven-year term expired.

Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-West Deptford) has said he will not hold hearings on Patterson until after Wallace’s term would have expired if he had been re-nominated. Christie has said the Senate is constitutionally mandated to hold the hearings.

Retired Justice Gary S. Stein, who was nominated by former Gov. Thomas H. Kean in 1985, expressed concern about Christie’s decision. “The [state] Constitution never contemplated a justice like Justice Wallace would not be re-nominated” for philosophical reasons, said Stein, who is special counsel at Hackensack-based Pashman Stein.

Patterson would help make the court balanced related to business issues, according to Christine Stearns, vice president of health and legal affairs for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.
“I am certain that she is someone who will bring a well-rounded perspective,” said Stearns.