Gov. Phil Murphy announced he will nominate Rachel Wainer Apter, the 40-year-old director of the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights and a former American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney, to fill the state Supreme Court left vacant by the upcoming retirement of Justice Jaynee LaVecchia.
Wainter Apter’s nomination coincided with the 88th birthday of late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for whom the state nominee served as a law clerk.
“In the words of Justice Ginsburg, ‘Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you,’” Murphy said. “In every aspect throughout her career, Rachel has lived these words.”
The nomination, first reported by the New Jersey Globe, is the second Murphy has made to the state’s high court as he prepares to mount a re-election campaign this year. Wainer Apter was considered to fill the seat vacated by former Associate Justice Walter Timpone earlier this year, but that seat went to Justice Fabiana Pierre Louis.
Because of that, the vetting process for the Englewood resident was mostly complete when LaVecchia informed the front office of her intention to leave the court before its current session.
“This court has stood strong against outside political interference and pressure,” Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said. “This is not just a testament to our Constitution, but to the women and men who have been entrusted with sitting on our highest court. Rachel will undoubtedly continue and strengthen this storied tradition.”
The nominee, a former counsel to attorney general Gurbir Grewal, struck a progressive note in her announcement speech, lending focus to her work enabling equality and her role in authoring a state directive that limited cooperation between New Jersey law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“The New Jersey Supreme Court has a proud history of recognizing the equal dignity of every human being and acknowledging how the law impacts real people each day,” she said. “Justice Ginsburg shared that legacy. I hope to be able to live up to that promise.”
She cited civil rights work on anti-discrimination and voting access cases she took on while at the ACLU in her announcement speech, invoking more than once the memory of Ginsburg, who last September at 87.
The Englewood resident was among the practitioners of law Attorney General Gurbir Grewal tapped to challenge former President Donald Trump’s bid to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
“Rachel is an intellectual powerhouse and one of the country’s most thoughtful and passionate civil rights litigators,” Grewal said. “She was one of the first people I brought on to my leadership team as Attorney General and since then I’ve had the privilege of working with her to improve the lives of all New Jerseyans.”
She’s already won the support of some Garden State legal groups.
“At times like these, when the civil rights of people of color are under attack throughout our nation, it is refreshing to see such a strong fighter for equality nominated to the highest court in our state. Rachel Wainer Apter has time and again proven her commitment to protecting the most vulnerable, including immigrants,” said New Jersey Latino Action Network President Christian Estevez. “The New Jersey Supreme Court will be stronger with addition of such a highly qualified and accomplished jurist.”
Before her nomination moves to the Senate, Wainer Apter must first win the approval of New Jersey State Bar Association’s Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee.
Two more of the high court’s justices will leave the court next year after hitting the mandatory retirement age of 70. Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina is due to retire on Feb. 15, 2022, while Justice Barry Albin is due leave the court after nearly 20 years on its bench on July 7, 20222.
Wainer Apter’s nomination is likely to move quickly. While there are months remaining before this year’s election, the winner of the race will fill the seat if Murphy’s nominee is not confirmed by the time the legislature reorganizes in January.
But her confirmation is unlikely to drag on for that long.
“I know Rachel Wainer Apter through her work as Law Director of the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights. She has an outstanding educational background and is a highly accomplished civil rights lawyer,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck). “Having begun her career as a law clerk for justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I know her career has been dedicated to a fight for equality. The Governor has made a fine nomination and I look forward to meeting with her very soon.”