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The Star-Ledger

For New Justice, It's A Case Of Perspective


September 12, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved. 

Roberto Rivera-Soto, the first Hispanic justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court, says he really enjoys a good debate.

A trial lawyer at heart, Rivera-Soto, 50, says he looks forward to the verbal sparring that marks each set of arguments when attorneys try to sway the court.

"As a trial lawyer, that's where the rubber meets the road," Rivera-Soto said. "That's what it's all about. And I'm just very much looking forward to being on the other side of the bench to see what that looks like."

The newest justice, who was quietly sworn in last week, will get his chance tomorrow when he hears arguments for the first time in his new post.

Another ceremonial swearing-in ceremony will be held Tuesday afternoon at the historic War Memorial in Trenton. About 500 guests are expected to attend.

During a recent interview at the Richard Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton - his new second home - Rivera-Soto, wearing his trademark hand-tied bow tie, had already begun the transition from private citizen to public jurist.

He admits there will be some butterflies in his stomach when he sits with the justices for the first time.

"I'm entirely apprehensive about everything," he said. "What I'm really looking forward to is the opportunity to help make New Jersey as good a place it can be."

When he graduated from high school, Rivera-Soto dreamed of becoming a doctor. He later preferred law, thinking he would become a globetrotting, international lawyer because of his facility with language. In addition to English and Spanish, he speaks French, Russian, Italian and Portuguese.

Marriage and family kept him stateside, where he built a law career and gained a reputation as a passionate trial lawyer. A former assistant U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Pennsylvania, he was general counsel to the Sands Casino in Atlantic City and Caesars World in Las Vegas before becoming a partner in the Philadelphia law firm Fox Rothchild, which also has offices in Princeton.

Born in New York City and raised in Puerto Rico, Rivera-Soto's choice as the replacement for Justice Peter Verniero surprised even members of the Hispanic Bar Association, who were not familiar with him. It garnered intense interest from the Spanish language media, including Telemundo, the Spanish-language television network, which followed the nomination process closely.

After he was confirmed by the state Senate, Rivera-Soto got an unexpected opportunity to watch Verniero and his new colleagues in action when the court met over the summer to determine whether Gov. James E. McGreevey's use of bonding to help balance the state budget was constitutional.

"That was a good one," he said. "The arguments were very good. The lawyers did a very nice job. I think it showed a lot of good things about the court. Number one, the respect with which it treats the advocates, and number two, the fact that each one of the justices who sat on it was very well-prepared. They were conversant with the issues. I think they are as magnificent a group of people as I have ever seen anywhere."

It's hard to predict how Rivera-Soto's appointment will affect the leanings of the seven-member court. Verniero, a Republican, was a moderate justice who often delivered a swing vote when the court was sharply divided. With no judicial record or legal writings, little is known about the philosophy or political preferences of Rivera-Soto, a registered Republican who contributed more money to Democrats than to the GOP.

"He's a mystery man as far as I'm concerned. I never heard of him before," said Rutgers Law School professor Frank Askin, a constitutional scholar and avid court watcher. "But, generally speaking, I have trusted Governor McGreevey's judicial appointments. We'll have to see how this one turns out."

Rivera-Soto, who lives in Haddonfield, is McGreevey's third appointment, following Justices Barry Albin and John Wallace. He and his wife, Mary Catherine Mullaney, a lawyer and homemaker, have three sons: Adam, 20; Christian, 14; and Nathan, 12.

As a justice on one of the nation's most respected state courts, Rivera-Soto will hear about 100 cases during court years that generally run from September to early May. The justices decide which cases to hear, and also preside over the disciplining of lawyers and other court officers. He has hired three law clerks - all graduates of Rutgers University Law School in Camden - to help research cases.

While he provides few clues as to how he might tackle the big legal questions of the day, Rivera-Soto concedes he will need to adjust to his new job after spending decades in the rough-and-tumble world of trial law. When they are not hearing arguments, justices spend long hours alone with cases and the law.

"That will be a fundamental change," Rivera-Soto said. "But real study of the law is an almost monastic endeavor, and in that respect the isolation of chambers is probably a good thing."

As the court's rookie justice, Rivera-Soto will also have to spruce up on his note-taking duties. By court tradition, the newest member is required to take the notes when the justices discuss cases in their conferences. Rivera-Soto said he was not aware of this ritual but is ready to serve.

"I suspect the laws of gravity will apply," he said.

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