Under the state constitution, Supreme Court appointees initially serve seven-year terms. At that point, if the governor renominates the justice and the state Senate concurs, the appointee is granted tenure until the mandatory retirement age of 70. Wilentz's term expires in early August.
Kean, a Republican, was emphatic in his support of Wilentz.
The governor said he acted yesterday, 10 weeks before the end of Wilentz's term, to quiet recent complaints by members of the governor's own party. Among the complaints are assertions that Wilentz has acted in a partisan manner to favor the Democratic Party, that he is too liberal, that the governor should replace Wilentz with a Republican, that the chief justice could play a role in drawing legislative district lines in 1990 and that the chief justice does not live in New Jersey.
In a recent letter to Kean, seven Republican lawmakers said it was "fair and just" for a Republican governor to appoint a Republican chief justice. No governor has rejected tenure for a Supreme Court justice since the court was reconstituted in 1948.
"My feeling is that he has served well and he has served honorably," Kean said yesterday. "And on every ground that I have a responsibility to consider, he should be worthy to continue as chief justice."
The governor added: "I do differ strongly with anybody who would imply that politics has ever entered into the court of this chief justice or this court, either now or in the past."
Kean also said that the cast of various court decisions was not a proper ground for rejecting tenure for a judge.
"If any judge in the state is worried about how he should make a decision that would affect his or her renomination, then the quality of justice is not going to be what you and I would want it to be in the state of New Jersey," Kean said.
By many independent accounts, Wilentz is a brilliant, hard-working and forceful leader on the seven-member court. He is a scion of one of the most wealthy and politically powerful Democratic families in the state. His father, David T. Wilentz, is the former state attorney general who successfully prosecuted Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the 1932 kidnapping and murder of Charles A. Lindbergh Jr.
As chief justice, Wilentz is the top administrator of the state's court system. He earns $80,000 a year. He attended Harvard University and earned a law degree from Columbia University. He served two terms in the General Assembly.
It was Wilentz who wrote the unanimous, 270-page Mount Laurel II decision, which critics, including Kean, have likened to a manifesto of social engineering.
In the 1983 opinion, the court ordered growing suburban communities to eliminate low-density zoning that has the effect of keeping lot and home sizes large and excluding the poor from housing. The decision extended special rights to developers who agreed to build higher-density, low-cost homes.
Suburban Republican lawmakers, some of them mayors or town attorneys, were outraged. They argued that the court had usurped legislative authority.
Wilentz also wrote the 1984 decision in which the court said a social host can be held liable if he or she negligently supplies liquor to a drunken guest who then causes a car accident. This, too, was sharply criticized in the legislature.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the Wilentz renomination in mid-June. The chairman, Democratic Sen. Edward T. O'Connor of Hudson County, said he anticipated approval of tenure for Wilentz.
Sen. C. William Haines, a Burlington County Republican who was among the seven signers of the letter to Kean, said he would not vote for Wilentz
because of the residency question and his opinion that Wilentz holds too liberal a view of the court's role. But Haines said he expected Wilentz to win tenure.
State Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a Bergen County Republican, who has virulently attacked Wilentz on the floor of the Senate, said he, too, would vote against Wilentz.
In recent years, Cardinale has repeatedly said on the floor of the Senate that the chief justice does not live in New Jersey but in Manhattan.
There is no constitutional residency requirement for justices of the Supreme Court.
The official Supreme Court biography lists Wilentz's residence as Perth Amboy, where he also has his primary offices. In late 1984, Wilentz said in an interview that he owns a beach home in Deal, N.J., and has an apartment in Perth Amboy and one in Manhattan that he shares with his wife.
"I spend the overwhelming portion of my time in New Jersey," Wilentz said at the time. He said that for undisclosed personal reasons, he had had to spend time in New York and that he was "not pleased" with the arrangement.