When Governor Jon Corzine returns to work next week after a grueling week-long trade mission to China, he’ll enter the final stretch of the process to get his first state budget approved by the Legislature before the June 30 deadline. After that, one of the key items on the fledgling Governor’s agenda will be the appointment of a new Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Deborah Poritz, who reaches the mandatory retirement age of seventy on October 26, is expected to step down this summer so that her replacement will be in office when the top court convenes in the fall. There is continued speculation that Corzine will elevate a Democratic Associate Justice, James Zazzali, to Chief, and maintain the traditional partisan balance of the Supreme Court by picking a Republican for Zazzali’s seat. Zazzali, who served as state Attorney General under Governor Brendan Byrne and was named to the bench by GOP Governor Christine Todd Whitman in 2000, would serve as Chief Justice for about a year. He’ll turn seventy on June 17, 2007, which would allow Corzine to appoint a Democrat to serve as Chief Justice on a potentially long-term basis. If Corzine opts for a Republican appointment, possible candidates include Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance and state Appellate Court Judge Ariel Rodriguez.