Michael Noriega, a former public defender and immigration rights advocate who handled litigation for the American Civil Liberties Union, is Gov. Phil Murphy’s choice to serve as an associate justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, giving the top court Hispanic representation, New Jersey Globe has confirmed.
Murphy will announce his intent to nominate Noriega on Monday.
If confirmed by the State Senate, the 45-year-old Union County Democrat would replace Barry Albin, the court’s liberal lion who reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in July 2022 after nineteen years on the state’s highest court.
Noriega is a partner at Bramnick, Rodriguez, Grabas, Arnold & Mangan, the Scotch Plains law firm headed by State Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield). He specializes in immigration and criminal law.
He would become the third Hispanic to serve on the New Jersey Supreme Court and the first since Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina retired on February 15, 2022. He would also become the first public defender to serve on the state’s top court, following a model used by President Joe Biden when he nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson last year.
Murphy had considered and interviewed several candidates for the top court, including John E. Keefe, Jr., a former president of the New Jersey State Bar Association and Appellate Court Judge Hany Mawla, but appeared determined to ensure Hispanic representation, the New Jersey Globe has confirmed.
The New Jersey Globe has also confirmed that Christine Soto, the general counsel at Essex County College, and Appellate Court Judge Lisa Perez Friscia were interviewed by Murphy and that former New Jersey Hispanic Bar Association President Julia López, former First Assistant Attorney General Ricardo Solano, U.S. Magistrate Judge Edward Kiel, and Solangel Maldonado, a Seton Hall law professor who clerked for two federal judges, were finalists for the post. Maldonado removed her name from consideration.
Sources have told the New Jersey Globe that U.S. Magistrates Judges André M. Espinosa and Jose R. Almonte also received consideration, along with Superior Court Judges Veronica Allende and Karina Fuentes.
This would be Murphy’s fourth pick for the Supreme Court since taking office in 2018. He nominated Fabiana Pierre-Louis in 2020, Rachel Wainer Apter in 2021, and Douglas Fasciale, a Republican, in 2022.
Should Noriega win Senate confirmation, four of the seven justices would have been nominated by him.
Murphy is expected to get one more Supreme Court nomination when Justice Lee Solomon turns 70 in August 2024. Solomon is a Republican from South Jersey, so unless the governor changes his mind on the court’s partisan balance, Noriega could become Murphy’s last Democratic Supreme Court nominee.
Noriega joined the Bramnick firm nine years ago after six years running a small law practice, Noriega & Associates. He was an assistant deputy public defender in Essex County from 2003 to 2008.
A graduate of Rutgers University and Seton Hall Law School, Noriega is an adjunct law professor at Seton Hall and a Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey member. He grew up in Union City, the hometown of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian P. Stack, as the son of Peruvian immigrants.
Noriega would be the first Supreme Court justice born in Hudson County since Marie Garibaldi retired in 2000.
Earlier this week, Noriega was sworn in as the president-elect of the New Jersey Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He’ll likely resign from that post following Murphy’s nomination announcement.
He served as chairman of the immigration law section of the New Jersey Bar Association.
In 2012, Noriega appeared before the New Jersey Supreme Court on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union in a case involving the suppression of drug evidence discovered during a warrantless search of a private residence by police officers who had responded to a complaint about excessive noise. The court upheld an appellate court’s decision to suppress the drug evidence, something Noriega had advocated.
He also argued a 2013 Supreme Court case for the ACLU involving a pair of ex parte discussions a trial judge, Maryann Bielamowicz, had with a jury in an attempted murder trial. Noriega had challenged “the judge’s discussion of contested issues with the jury outside of counsel’s presence.” Bielamowicz had also permitted jurors to bring trial materials home over the weekend.
If the Senate approves Noriega’s nomination as the state’s 47th Supreme Court Justice, it would mean that two of the seven sitting justices had worked for the ACLU. Wainer Apter was an ACLU staff attorney before working on Murphy’s 2017 gubernatorial campaign.
He has also represented the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, arguing that the state’s Criminal Justice Reform Act permits judges to detain non-citizens to prevent immigration officials from deporting them.
Just after the 2020 presidential election, Noriega touted his participation in a “virtual celebration” sponsored by Make the Road New Jersey, an immigrants rights group.
“As the world around us changes, again, it is time to turn to our most in-need communities to begin to heal and find a path forward,” Noriega said. “Join Make the Road as it leads the way to face the challenges confronting the immigrant population.”
In 2018, Noriega publicly opposed ICE’s staking out courthouses to arrest immigrants.
“While it may seem like someone else’s problem, everyone has a right to access our legal system,” he said. “These targeted enforcements chill the rights of victims and witnesses, let alone defendants scheduled for court.
Noriega might face some tough questions when he comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee about some past clients.
In 2016, Noriega represented Mayco “Mikee” Enriquez, a busboy at a Scotch Plains restaurant accused of attempting to sexually assault another employee after exposing his genitals and asking her for sex. Enriquez was later deported back to Guatemala after he was charged with criminal sexual conduct.
Judge Jack M. Sabatino, elevated to the top court in September to temporarily fill Albin’s seat, would return to his assignment as an appellate court judge if Noriega is confirmed.