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Fabiana Pierre-Louis is nominated to the New Jersey Supreme Court by Gov. Phil Murphy on June 5, 2020. (Photo: Pool by Chris Pedota/Gannett.)

Murphy suggests he’ll keep state Supreme Court balanced if re-elected

Four justices to age out by October 2024

By Nikita Biryukov, February 17 2021 3:09 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy suggested he would abide by a long-standing tradition of partisan balance on the state’s high court if he won a second term as governor.

“I don’t have any comment about the future,” he said at Wednesday’s virus briefing. “But I think if you look at our behavior in our first three years in the way we treated the tradition of the Supreme Court, you can expect that that approach, it’ll continue if we’re lucky enough to get re-elected.”

A few months after he took office in 2018, Murphy renominated Associate Justice Anne Patterson to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Patterson, a Republican, was originally nominated by Gov. Chris Christie.

Murphy last year he was “proud to restore the tradition of removing politics from this process,” adding he hoped the tradition would continue through to the next administration.

Since the state adopted its 1947 constitution, New Jersey’s high court has largely been in a state of balance. Currently, three Democrats and Republicans hold seats on the bench, as well as independent Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, who is considered widely as in the GOP camp.

If Murphy wanted to redefine the court, he could.

Four of New Jersey’s Supreme Court justices will hit the mandatory retirement age of 70 in next gubernatorial term, and most of them fall on the Republican side.

Justice Barry Albin, perhaps the high court’s most liberal member, will turn 70 next July. Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina will turn 70 sooner, on Feb. 15, 2022. Justices Lee Solomon and LaVecchia will age out of the court in August, 2024, and October, 2024, respectively.

Solomon could be out sooner. He’s one of two justices on the bench without tenure, the other being Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis, a Murphy nominee and the court’s newest member.

The Christie nominee’s initial seven-year term ends on June 19.

Even if Murphy wanted to stack the court in his party’s favor, it’s not clear whether the Senate would let him.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) on Tuesday said he believed the tradition of partisan balance should continue. He and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) have the ability to block or stall judicial nominations.

But questions about the court’s composition may have to wait until after November, when Murphy will face a Republican challenger, most likely former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli.

“I don’t presume and assume getting re-elected for one second,” Murphy said. “I’ll always hope for the best and prepare for the worst and work my tail off, and I know the team will.”

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