POLITICS

Hispanic Bar Association: Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto Wrong, But Should Not Leave

New Jersey’s Hispanic lawyers association has assailed the state’s only Latino Supreme Court justice for his refusal for a brief time to issue decisions as a form of protest.

But the group also voiced its opposition to calls by some legislators for the judge’s impeachment or immediate resignation, saying that Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto’s actions – while unwise – did not call for such punitive measures.

Toward the end of last year, Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto announced that he would refrain from rendering decisions because he opposed the presence of a temporary judge on the bench. The temporary judge was assigned after Gov. Chris Christie – breaking with precedent – refused to reappoint Justice John Wallace Jr.

“Although the HBA-NJ supports the independence of the judiciary...it nonetheless disagrees with Justice Rivera-Soto's determination to abstain from voting in certain cases because it deprives the Court, litigants, and the citizens of the State of New Jersey of his considered views," the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jew Jersey said in a statement.

“While disagreeing with the position taken by Justice Rivera-Soto, the organization strongly disagrees that the Justice’s decision would justify impeachment proceedings," said HBA-NJ. "The HBA-NJ regards impeachment under [the New Jersey Constitution] as a power to be exercised by the Legislature to address cases involving misdemeanor offenses committed by public officials.”

The association noted that Rivera-Soto long had showed his “commitment to the independence of the judiciary.”

The Hispanic bar association says it is concerned that without Rivera-Soto – who said he would not seek re-appointment in the fall – or Wallace, who is African-American, the bench will be devoid of minorities.

“Hispanics are the largest minority group in New Jersey,” said Suzette Rodríguez, president of the association. “What a unique opportunity Gov. Christie has here to select among the many talented Hispanic attorneys in New Jersey to appoint to the highest court.”

Rodríguez said the association is going to send the governor a list of candidates to consider for the bench.

After declaring that he was, in essence, going on strike to protest Judge Edwin Stern, the temporary justice, Rivera-Soto softened his position. Rivera-Soto said that he would render decisions on cases where Stern would not sway the final decision.
Rivera-Soto, the most conservative justice on the bench, also said he would not seek re-appointment.

But that did not assuage some of the state legislators, who called for Rivera-Soto to step down immediately.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney said to reporters: “I don’t know which is worse, Rivera-Soto’s original decision not to rule or [his] about-face. Neither is spinning so fast to reclaim whatever shred of relevance or credibility he still has, it’s amazing he hasn’t been flung out of the Supreme Court and clear across the Delaware River.”

Before the controversy, Christie, a Republican, vowed to change the composition of the court, which he said was too liberal.

After he said he would not re-appoint Wallace, the Democrat-controlled legislature pushed back by saying that it would not hold a hearing for Christie’s nominee to replace Wallace until 2012, when Wallace’s mandatory retirement at 70 would occur.

Rivera-Soto, who was born in New York City and grew up in Puerto Rico, is the state's first Hispanic judge on the state Supreme Court.

You can reach Elizabeth Llorente at: Elizabeth.Llorente@FoxNewsLatino.com.

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Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.