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Hispanic And Historic; Lawyer Raised In Puerto Rico Tapped For N.J. Supreme Court McGreevey's Pick A Passionate Lawyer
Hispanic And Historic; Lawyer Raised In Puerto Rico Tapped For N.J. Supreme Court
JOSH GOHLKE, TRENTON BUREAU
April 21, 2004
A longtime casino-industry lawyer who grew up in Puerto Rico became the first Hispanic nominated to New Jersey's highest court Tuesday.
Governor McGreevey's selection of Roberto A. Rivera-Soto, now a corporate trial lawyer living in Camden County, answers the clamor for a Latino justice that overshadowed the last choice for state Supreme Court.
For Rivera-Soto, it was also a personal honor that he was still "having trouble getting my head around," he said.
"As a lawyer, words are my stock in trade," Rivera-Soto said during a news conference at the State House. "However, at moments like this, words seem such incomplete descriptive tools."
McGreevey said Rivera-Soto, whose father was an electrician and whose mother was not educated beyond the third grade, was the "embodiment of the American dream." And he stressed that Rivera- Soto, whose appointment is subject to confirmation by the state Senate, is highly qualified by any standard.
"The court ought to reflect the state," the governor said. "But our one basic responsibility was to find the best candidate. I am confident that the justice-designate represents that standard of excellence."
Rivera-Soto, 50, of Haddonfield, is a former federal prosecutor who served as general counsel to two casino and hotel corporations before becoming a partner in the Philadelphia firm Fox Rothschild, where he has represented corporate clients at trial.
He also meets some other standards that have come to seem imperative. As a registered Republican, he would preserve a tradition of partisan balance on the court by filling the seat to be vacated in August by Justice Peter Verniero, also a Republican. As a Hispanic, he could help McGreevey overcome trouble that surrounded his prior nomination to the court.
Last year, word leaked that the governor was considering Zulima Farber, a Cuban-American lawyer and former state public advocate, to replace retired Justice James Coleman, the court's first African- American. But Coleman was replaced by another African-American jurist, John E. Wallace Jr. of Gloucester County. Some Hispanic leaders charged that Farber was dropped because the administration was under pressure to reserve the spot for another African- American.
McGreevey aides countered that Farber's imperfect driving record was to blame, further angering many Hispanics. Her driving record included a warrant issued for her arrest because she failed to appear in court on a speeding ticket.
Verniero then unexpectedly made way for McGreevey's third appointment to the court by announcing he would retire early. The justice said last year that he wanted to avoid the inevitable revisiting of his role in the racial-profiling scandal that erupted while he was then-Gov. Christie Whitman's attorney general. McGreevey's latest selection was made with the assistance of former state Supreme Court Justice Alan Handler.
The most bizarre legacy of the Farber fracas is that the driving records of prospective New Jersey justices are now subject to intense scrutiny. Rivera-Soto was asked about his during Tuesday's news conference, and the administration released the details later.
The nominee logged eight speeding tickets from 1984 to 1994 (highest speed: 76 mph). In 1995, Rivera-Soto's driver's license was suspended for an unpaid insurance surcharge after he moved out of New Jersey and got a Nevada license. He paid $252.02 in penalties and interest to have it restored after his return to New Jersey in 1999, when he first learned about the problem, an administration official said.
None of this seemed to be causing much consternation Tuesday.
"We're very happy that the governor has decided at this point to nominate a Hispanic attorney to the court," said Jose Sierra, who heads the state Hispanic Bar Association's judicial-appointments committee. "I have no complaints."
State Sen. John Adler, D-Camden County, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised the choice. So did another committee member, Republican Sen. William Gormley of Atlantic County.
"His reputation in the legal community is an excellent one," Gormley said. "No questions have come up about his integrity."
Gormley said Rivera-Soto has not been particularly active in politics. Records show he has donated $4,100 to the McGreevey campaign and inauguration funds since 2001, and $1,050 to Democratic Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez of Camden County.
Rivera-Soto was born in New York City and raised in Puerto Rico, where he attended high school in Rio Piedras. He graduated from Haverford College in Pennsylvania and obtained his law degree at Cornell University in 1977.
His early career included a three-year stint as assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, where he met his wife, Mary, while prosecuting a bank robbery.
From 1983 to 1999, Rivera-Soto served as counsel to two resort companies. As chief attorney for the company that owns the Sands Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, he became embroiled in a legal struggle with Donald Trump and former Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione over a piece of boardwalk property. The lengthy suit ended in Trump's favor after a judge said he found the account of a Penthouse executive more credible than that offered by Rivera-Soto and two other Sands executives.
Rivera-Soto later moved to Las Vegas, where he served as general counsel and senior vice president of the Caesars casinos and Sheraton hotels. He said Tuesday that his stints as a corporation counsel gave him a breadth of experience in different legal issues.
Since 1999, Rivera-Soto has worked at Fox Rothschild, mainly as a courtroom lawyer representing corporations such as the drug company Pharmacia and the embattled accounting firm Arthur Andersen. His main office has been in Philadelphia, but he has logged ample time at the firm's Princeton location.
"He happens to be extremely intelligent, and he can argue a position better than any lawyer I've seen," said Jonathan Weiner, another partner at the firm. "He's a real trial lawyer."
Rivera-Soto has offered a number of colorful quotes on behalf of his clients over the years. He reportedly accused Trump of doing "everything he could - both legally and illegally - to ensure he did not have a competitor next door." When a cocktail waitress sued the Sands for forcing her to wear a provocative uniform, Rivera-Soto called the lawsuit "indescribably silly."
An adversary once called Rivera-Soto's style "confrontational at best."
On Tuesday, any such flamboyance was limited to the nominee's bow tie. Standing next to the governor and two of Rivera-Soto's three sons, the nominee held his wife's hand and stroked it nervously.
"Probably my first feeling was disbelief," he said when asked about his reaction to the nomination. "This is a dream for anybody in my profession."
Residence: Haddonfield, Camden County
Education: Colegio Nuestra Seora del Pilar, Puerto Rico, 1970; honors degree, Haverford College, Pennsylvania, 1974; law degree, Cornell Law School, Ithaca, N.Y., 1977.
Experience: Assistant U.S. attorney, criminal division, eastern district of Pennsylvania, 1978-80; lawyer for Philadelphia firm of Fox Rothschild, 1980-84; vice president and corporate counsel for Sands Casino in Atlantic City, 1984-94; general counsel and corporate secretary for Caesars World in Las Vegas until rejoining Fox Rothschild in 1999.
Family: Married to Mary Catherine Mullaney; three sons, Adam, 19, Christian, 13, Nathan, 11.
Political affiliation: Republican
Other activities: Chairman of District 7 of the New Jersey Supreme Court's Ethics Committee; former member of board of directors of New Jersey Development Authority for Small Business, Minorities, and Women's Enterprises.
McGreevey's Pick For Top Court A Passionate Lawyer
ROBERT SCHWANEBERG AND KATHY BARRETT CARTER
April 25, 2004
When he was a law student, Roberto Rivera-Soto once argued so vociferously in moot court that his professor threatened to hold him in contempt.
As in-house counsel to one of Atlantic City's smaller casinos, he took on real estate mogul Donald Trump and pornography publisher Robert Guccione in a bitter civil racketeering case - and lost.
During his 27 years as a lawyer, Rivera-Soto has been impressing admirers and critics alike with his intensity, daring and certainty in the justness of his position. Last week, after being passed over for trial-level judgeships on the federal and state courts, he was tapped by Gov. James E. McGreevey to fill an upcoming vacancy on the New Jersey Supreme Court.
His supporters say it is a job that suits his passion and devotion to the law. His critics say he can be arrogant and abrasive, and question whether he has the judicial temperament for the post.
McGreevey's office has instructed Rivera-Soto not to talk to the media until after his confirmation hearing.
If confirmed by the Senate, Rivera-Soto would become the first Hispanic to sit on the state's highest court - the crowning accomplishment to a career that already has been, in the governor's words, "an American success story."
Born in New York, he was raised in Puerto Rico and graduated from high school there before moving back to the United States to attend Haverford College and Cornell University Law School. At 50, he is a partner in the Philadelphia law firm of Fox Rothschild, a certified federal mediator and chair of the lawyers' ethics committee for Mercer County.
He is married with three sons. His wife, Mary Catherine Mullaney, also is a lawyer. They live in a large, white house with red shutters and tidy flower boxes in the most exclusive section of Haddonfield, the most expensive town in Camden County. Pink tulips bloom in the front yard. A WORKAHOLICColleagues describe him as a workaholic with a broad range of interests. Maureen Kerns, a fellow lawyer in his firm, said Rivera-Soto is a devotee of the orchestra and opera who also holds season tickets to the Philadelphia Eagles. He also has a pilot's license - though he does not own a plane - and drives a motorcycle, she said.
But his real passion, his partners say, is his work as a trial lawyer.
"After his wife and children, Roberto's greatest love is the law," Jonathan Weiner, a partner at Fox Rothschild, said. "Nobody works harder than Roberto."
With his signature look - a bow tie and white shirt - Rivera-Soto projects a distinct air of formality.
"I've never seen him without a bow tie on," said Trenton lawyer Joel Sterns. Neither has Weiner, who added, "and these are the ones he ties himself, not the clip-ons."
That image, coupled with his assertive style, rubs some people the wrong way.
"He was pompous," said Jay Newman, a New York lawyer for Penthouse and Guccione who was on the opposite side from Rivera-Soto during a bitterly contested 10-month civil trial in Atlantic County that ended in 1993. Newman said he frequently deals with lawyers who are forceful advocates, but Rivera-Soto "crossed that line."
Sterns, who also was one of Rivera-Soto's adversaries during the same trial, has a far more positive view of him.
"There is no doubt in my mind he is a person of absolute integrity," Sterns said. "He is a hard-driving guy. He is very passionate, and he's very outspoken. If he's made up his mind that something is right, he acts on that."
Some other lawyers privately called Rivera-Soto arrogant or abrasive but were unwilling to publicly criticize a potential state Supreme Court justice. Even his critics are nearly unanimous in calling him bright and hard- working, but Newman said, "I think he thinks he is smarter than he is." AN EARLY REPUTATION Rivera-Soto got his reputation as a vociferous advocate early. At Cornell, he took a class with professor G. Robert Blakey, one of the nation's authorities on racketeering law, that required students to argue a case in moot court.
"As they say in the military, he had a command presence in the courtroom," said Blakey, who now teaches at Notre Dame Law School. "He pressed me to the limits of my envelope. I told him if he continued, 'Mr. Soto, you will be in contempt.'"
"He was very bright, hard-working, but to put it mildly, vigorous in his presentation," said Blakey, who later recommended Rivera-Soto for a job with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia. "I think he'll be a great judge."
Philadelphia lawyer Peter Vaira was the U.S. attorney for Eastern Pennsylvania when Rivera-Soto worked in that office from 1978 to 1980.
"He's a bright guy, very bright guy, fast learner," Vaira said. "He was kind of - what's the best way to put it? - enthusiastic. Sometimes maybe a little too enthusiastic, but that's young guys. You have to cool them down sometimes. Judges would sometimes say, 'Cool this guy down.'"
Since his days as a federal prosecutor, Rivera-Soto has handled a wide range of legal matters, mostly on the civil side of the law. From 1980 to 1983, he was an associate at Fox Rothschild before joining the Sands Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. As its chief legal officer, at age 30, he was responsible for everything from dealing with casino regulators to securing zoning approvals to handling contract negotiations, construction disputes and lawsuits against the casino. Faced with a lawsuit by a cocktail waitress who complained the skimpy costumes they were required to wear amounted to sex discrimination, Rivera-Soto called it "indescribably silly."
After a decade at the Sands, he moved to Nevada as general counsel to Caesars World. He returned to Fox Rothschild in 1999, specializing in corporate litigation.
Kerns said Rivera-Soto wanted to return to New Jersey and spend more time in court.
Colleagues say Rivera-Soto brings the same intensity to whatever he does. FACING TRUMP The Trump case in 1989 perhaps best illustrates Rivera-Soto's aggressive litigation style. The Sands had a deal to buy the site of the partially completed Penthouse casino for $40 million and build a new casino. But the sale never went through, and Penthouse sold the land to Trump.
But that wasn't the end of it. Penthouse then sued Sands to get back a small parcel of land held by the Sands that was part of the original deal. At that point, it was a routine real estate dispute.
Rivera-Soto, then the Sands' 35-year-old general counsel, turned it into a $2.1 billion civil racketeering and antitrust case that took four years of litigation and 10 months of trial to resolve. The Sands dragged Trump and Penthouse owner Guccione into the case, charging they conspired to hurt the Sands and engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity.
It was an audacious gambit with a David and Goliath flavor. The Sands was one of the smallest Atlantic City casinos. Trump owned three of the biggest, and the Sands claimed he was really playing the old Boardwalk game of Monopoly. To punish him for his alleged racketeering and antitrust violations, the Sands asked the court to revoke his three casino licenses.
Had the tiny Sands won, it could have run Trump out of Atlantic City.
The outcome was very different. The porn publisher and accused monopolist emerged completely vindicated. In a 109-page opinion, Superior Court Judge Anthony Gibson, who heard the case without a jury, said Trump and Guccione had taken reasonable steps to protect their business interests.
One of the critical issues was whether Penthouse President David Myerson had orally agreed to extend the deadline for the Sands to close on the purchase.
Rivera-Soto and two of his bosses all swore Myerson had agreed to extend the deadline, even though it could cost his company millions of dollars.
Asked by Gibson why Myerson would make such a concession, Rivera-Soto replied, "We had him over a barrel." He told the judge Penthouse was so desperate to unload its property that if it had asked Myerson to "walk stark naked down Broad Street at noon, he would have done it."
The judge didn't buy it. He wrote that "the totality of the believable evidence does not support (the Sands') version of what happened."
A decade later, some of the combatants in that trial have formed friendships while others still harbor hard feelings. THE THIRD CHOICE Sterns said he occasionally goes to the orchestra with Rivera-Soto and supported his earlier quests for a U.S. District Court judgeship and a seat on the state Superior Court. Neither materialized.
The third time proved to be the charm for Rivera-Soto, though he was not the first choice. After Justice Peter Verniero announced he would resign at the end of the current court term, the governor's office approached U.S. District Court Judge Jose Linares and U.S. Appeals Court Judge Julio Fuentes, but neither was interested, according to numerous sources.
Sen. John Adler (D-Camden) said he had sent the governor Rivera-Soto's résumé for consideration for a Superior Court judgeship but was surprised when McGreevey tapped him for the state's highest court. So was Sterns.
"He's so nonpolitical you just wouldn't expect this," Sterns said. "Politics has never been part of his life."
Even leaders of the Hispanic Bar Association, while delighted that McGreevey picked a Latino, were not familiar with Rivera-Soto. He is expected to become a dues-paying member and meet with association leaders soon. After that meeting, the association will decide whether to support him, according to Jose Sierra, chairman of the association's appointments committee. Others who have tangled with him over the years say, privately, that he lacks the judicial demeanor needed to serve on the high court.
But Robert Williams, a professor at Rutgers Law School in Camden, cautioned that lawyers often turn out to be very different once they get on the bench.
Williams said the New Jersey Supreme Court in particular has "a strong, scholarly, open-minded tradition" that new appointees tend to live up to.
"I think anybody who's appointed to that court will be influenced by its tradition," Williams said.