The controversy started on May 3, 2010, when the Republican governor took the unprecedented step of refusing to reappoint Wallace over concern that the court was too liberal.
Democrats, who control the Legislature, accused Christie of politicizing the judiciary, given that Wallace was considered a moderate and was two years away from the mandatory retirement age of 70.
Democrat Sweeney drew criticism from Republicans when he refused to allow Senate hearings for Patterson, vowing that the position of Wallace, a fellow Gloucester County resident, would not be permanently filled until his 70th birthday in March 2012.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner appointed appellate Judge Edwin Stern to take Wallace's place temporarily, triggering a new uproar after Rivera-Soto said in December that he would abstain from voting over objections that the appointment was unconstitutional. Rivera-Soto has since said he will step down when his first term ends in September.
Sweeney said Monday that he and the governor had acted on principle: The senator wanted to maintain the court's independence, while Christie wanted to remake the court that he has criticized repeatedly for legislating from the bench.
Both men have personalities that don't make compromise easy, Sweeney said, but "we need to move forward. This is too important of an issue."
He also agreed the Senate would hold timely hearings when Christie makes nominations to permanently replace Wallace, as well as Justice Virginia Long, who also faces mandatory retirement in 2012.
Robert Williams, a law professor at Rutgers University-Camden, said the terms of the deal would restore the court to full strength, given that there would be two temporary justices if the stalemate were to continue past Rivera-Soto's departure.
"In the way the court's going to actually operate, it is not a tremendous step, but on the political side [the agreement] is very important," he said.
Christie said watching recent arguments in the Abbott v. Burke school funding case before the Supreme Court enforced the need for "legitimate justices up there."
The court is expected to render a decision soon on whether the state will have to come up with an extra $1.6 billion in education funding, in response to a lawsuit claiming that the governor's education cuts last year were unconstitutional. The governor has harshly criticized the Supreme Court's decisions in the long-running Abbott v. Burke case, which held that poorer school districts must be funded on par with wealthier ones, for resulting in high taxes for little educational return.
Christie said that if Patterson is confirmed, New Jersey will become the fifth state to have a Supreme Court with a majority of female justices.
But legislative approval is not guaranteed.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that he would vote against Patterson, in part over concerns that the seven-justice court would have no minorities despite the state's diverse population. Wallace is African American; Rivera-Soto is Hispanic.
Patterson, 52, is a corporate attorney from Mendham - the same town as Christie. She has primarily represented business concerns in class actions and corporate litigation and appeals. Her clients have included the DuPont Co., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., and the state GOP.
"Her passing is certainly no foregone conclusion, I'll tell you that," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), who is looking at a hearing for June 2.
"Given what we know about the increasing minority population in New Jersey, I would hope that the Supreme Court would have some reflection of that in its membership," he said.
"The hearing," added Scutari, "will be interesting, that's all I can say."
Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 609-989-8990 or email@example.com.