Home>Highlight>Robert Muir, judge in landmark Quinlan right to die case, passes away at 90

Former Superior Court Judge Robert Muir, Jr. (Photo: New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts).

Robert Muir, judge in landmark Quinlan right to die case, passes away at 90

Former Mendham councilman and Morris GOP lawyer spent 30 years as N.J. trial and appellate court judge

By David Wildstein, August 13 2022 1:20 pm

Robert Muir, Jr., a rising star in Republican politics who became a Superior Court Judge at age 38 and spent three decades on the bench, died on August 9 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.  He was 90.

In 1975, Muir was the judge on one of the state’s most controversial cases, and one that garnered national attention: whether Karen Ann Quinlan, a 21-year-old Morris County woman who fell into a coma after combining alcohol and Valium, had a legal right to die.  Her parents went to court to have her removed from ventilators, a move that Muir rejected in 1975.

“Since Karen Quinlan is medically and legally alive, the Court should not authorize termination of the respirator, that to do so would be homicide and an act of euthanasia,” Muir wrote in his opinion.

“I pause to note the scope of my role. I am concerned only with the facts of this case and the issues presented by them,” Muir stated.  “It is not my function to render an advisory opinion. In this age of advanced medical science, the prolongation of life and organ transplants, it is not my intent; nor can it be, to resolve the extensive civil and criminal legal dilemmas engendered.”

But the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed Muir in 1976.   With her parents’ consent, Quinlan continued to be fed with a feeding tube until her death of pneumonia in 1985.

Muir was elevated to the appellate division in 1986 and spent fourteen years there and was a presiding appellate judge before his retirement.

After the legislature created two new county court judges in Morris, Gov. William Cahill nominated Muir and a Democrat, Morris County Prosecutor Charles Egan, Jr., to the bench.

At the time, he was serving as an aide to Harry Sears (R-Mountain Lakes), the majority leader of the New Jersey State Senate.  Sears had announced that he would not seek re-election in order to focus on his leadership role in President Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign.

A former counsel to the Morris County Republican Committee, Muir had also served as the borough attorney in Chatham, Denville and Madison and as counsel to the Morris County Board of Elections.  Before moving to Morris County, he had been appointed to the South Plainfield Industrial Commission in 1961.

During a probe of voter registration irregularities in Morris County in 1962, the prosecutor, a Democrat, named Muir as a special assistant prosecutor to provide partisan balance to the investigation.

In 1964, the 34-year-old Muir ran for Mendham Borough Council on a ticket with incumbent Willis Sanders.   He was the top vote-getter, running about 70 votes ahead of Democrat John Dormer.  Dormer ousted Sanders by roughly 200 votes.  Muir won the seat of Councilman Andrew Fletcher, who was instead running for mayor.

That put Muir on the governing body with another young councilman, Democrat Robert Mulcahy, who went on to become a powerful political insider in New Jersey politics for parts of six decades.

In 1967, Muir had briefly considered running for the State Assembly but dropped out of the race.  The seats went to Josephine Margetts (R-New Vernon) and Peter W. Thomas (R-Chatham).   Instead, he forged a close relationship with Sears, who moved up to the Senate after reapportionment gave Morris County three seats in the upper house.

He did not seek re-election as a councilman in 1967.

Muir was viewed as a potential candidate for Morris County Republican Chairman in 1968 after Thomas resigned to become an assemblyman but decided not to run.

He played a major role in Sears’s unsuccessful campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nominating in 1969.

After his retirement, Muir joined the Morristown law firm of Porzio, Bromberg & Newman.  The firm’s founder, Ralph Porzio, had served as lead counsel on the Quinlan case.

A former church elder and Sunday School teacher, Muir served in the U.S. Navy from 1954 to 1956 and was assigned to the National Security Agency.  Born in Nutley, he was a 1954 graduate of Wesleyan University and graduated from New York University Law School in 1959.

He is survived by his wife, Harriett, three children, eleven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

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