Could Lance be headed to the top court this time?

Several public officials today expressed surprise at the complaint filed against Supreme Court Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto, but legal insiders for years have considered the McGreevey-appointee has one of the Judiciary’s most narcissistic jurists. Even prior to his confirmation to the bench, his former adversaries were quoted in an April 2004 Star-Ledger profile describing him as “pompous,” “arrogant and abrasive,” and questioned whether he had the temperament for the post.

Rivera Soto was Governor James E. McGreevey’s third choice to replace Justice Peter J. Verniero who had retired before his term ended anticipating McGreevey would not renominate him to the bench. Both U.S. District Court Judge Jose Linares and U.S. Appeals Court Judge Julio Fuentes — father of Associate Counsel for the Assembly Majority Karina Fuentes — turned down McGreevey’s offers for the post.

In all likelihood, Rivera-Soto would not have been nominated as an Associate Justice had McGreevey’s nomination of Cuban-American Zulima Farber to the Court not been withdrawn in 2003. Farber was originally nominated to replace Justice James Coleman, but Coleman was ultimately replaced by another African American judge, John E. Wallace, Jr. after driving violations of Farber’s surfaced. Hispanic leaders at the time accused McGreevey of dropping Farber’s nomination — not because of Farber’s driving record — but due to pressure from black legislators to fill the vacancy with an African American judge. (Then-Congressman Robert Menendez, a Farber ally, called McGreevey’s administration “amateur hour.”) Reports of Rivera Soto’s own spotty driving record, including a suspended driver’s license, seemed to substantiate that theory.

Farber resigned as Attorney General on August 31, 2006 after being accused of abusing her office on behalf of her boyfriend. The Rivera-Soto controversy began only three weeks later, according to the complaint filed against him, when he became actively involved in a criminal complaint filed against his son’s football teammate. The allegations did not become public until Friday.

Because he is also known as the most conservative member of the New Jersey Supreme Court, the Rivera-Soto controversy may present a dilemma for leaders of the state GOP, especially those who were critical of Farber for abusing her office in a private matter (some Republicans even called for Farber’s impeachment). Governor Jon Corzine would likely appoint an Associate Justice far less conservative than Rivera-Soto.

Perhaps no Republican is in a more awkward situation than Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance, who could be on the short list to replace Rivera-Soto should the Justice resign or be removed. Lance was mentioned for the last open seat, which went to Helen Hoens, a Republican Superior Court Judge from Somerset County whose husband, veteran reporter Robert Schwaneberg, covers state government for the Star-Ledger.

Another possible replacement is Ariel Rodriguez, a veteran state Appellate Court Judge and a Republican from Hudson County.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, New Jersey Governors traditionally maintain a partisan balance on the Court but are not required to do so. Rivera-Soto is one of three Republicans currently on the Court.

Should Rivera-Soto resign over the next few weeks, Corzine could ensure Hispanic representation on the Court and resolve a major political battle in Essex by appointing Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore and Seton Hall Law Professor Wilfredo Caraballo to the Court.

After Chief Justice James Zazzali’s vacancy next month, the next mandatory retirement on the Supreme Court will not occur until the next gubernatorial term in 2012 when both Justice Virginia Long and Wallace turn 70. Corzine’s recovery from his auto accident and decision on whether or not to seek a second term is the major determinative factor in any scenario.

Could Lance be headed to the top court this time?