Retired Superior Court Judge Daniel R. Coburn, who as the top public defender in Morris County represented Karen Ann Quinlan in a landmark “right to die” court case in the 1970s, died on September 11. He was 76.
The Quinlan case received national attention as an early legal test of the right to die issue.
Quinlan, then 21, fell into a coma in 1975 after combining alcohol and Valium and suffered severe brain damage after extended respiratory failure. Her parents went to court to have her removed from ventilators, a move the New Jersey Supreme Court approved in 1976.
With her parents consent, Quinlan continued to be fed with a feeding tube. She died in 1985.
Gov. Brendan Byrne nominated Coburn, then 36, to serve as a judge of the Morris County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in January 1980 to replace Judge John M. Newman, who had been elevated to the Superior Court.
The Coburn and Newman nominations were blocked by two Republican State Senators from Morris County, John Dorsey (R-Boonton) and James Vreeland (R-Montville).
The Republicans were using Coburn as leverage to propel another family court judge, former Morris County Prosecutor Donald Collester, to the Superior Court. They also wanted Byrne to name Montville Municipal Court Judge Herbert Friend to replace Collester.
Coburn and Newman were Democrats.
Byrne refused the Dorsey-Vreeland deal and a standoff went on for nearly a year.
Angered by the delay, Newman withdrew his name from consideration, resigned from the bench and returned to his law practice.
During the impasse between Byrne and the senators, state Public Advocate Stanley Van Ness appointed former Assistant Morris County Prosecutor Michael Murphy to replace Coburn as public defender.
Dorsey criticized Van Ness for paying for two public defenders, a practice the Republican senator called “featherbedding.”
Byrne outlasted Dorsey and Vreeland, who finally signed off on the Coburn nomination in November 1980. Both Morris GOP senators served on the Judiciary Committee. Vreeland voted to release Coburn’s nomination, but Dorsey abstained.
Collester eventually made his way to the Superior Court.
Coburn was later elevated to the Superior Court and spent twelve years as a judge before retiring in 1992.
After leaving the bench, Coburn became a television commentator and handled a murder inquiry in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He later served as Morristown Municipal Prosecutor and a a member of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission.
In 1969, Coburn served on the staff of the New Jersey Criminal Law Revision Commission. He had also taught at Rutgers University Law School.
Coburn is survived by his daughter and grandson.
Visitation will be held on Monday from 5-7 PM at the Bailey Funeral Home in Mendham. A funeral service is scheduled there at 7 PM.
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