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New Jersey Superior Court Judge Maritza Berdote Byrne. (Photo: New Jersey Courts).

Berdote Byrne emerges as top contender for state Supreme Court seat

Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina reaches mandatory retirement age on February 15

By Joey Fox and David Wildstein, January 03 2022 5:34 pm

Superior Court Judge Maritza Berdote Byrne is under strong consideration to become the first Latina to serve on the New Jersey Supreme Court, several sources have confirmed.

Berdote Byrne is being vetted for the seat currently held by Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina, who will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 on February 15.

Another Latina Republican, Union County Assignment Judge Lisa Miralles Walsh, is also on a short list of potential Supreme Court picks.

The nomination of Berdote Byrne, a Republican, might pave the way for the confirmation of Rachel Wainer Apter to replace Jaynee LaVecchia on the top court.

Murphy nominated Wainer Apter, a former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg and an ACLU staff attorney, last March but the State Senate has not moved to confirm her.  The guarantee that the Fernandez-Vina seat would go to a Republican is expected to allow Wainer Apter and another Supreme Court nominee to move forward as a package.

Under the unwritten rule of senatorial courtesy, Bergen County senators must sign off on Wainer Apter before the Judiciary Committee considers her nomination.  State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) has not given her sign off.

At his weekly press briefing today, Murphy declined to discuss Wainer Apter or his timeline on replacing Fernandez-Vina.

“No update on either of the Supreme Court justices, other than to say that we’ve enjoyed a very good partnership and deliberations with our legislative colleague,” he said.  “I’m confident that we’ll have a good result.”

If Wainer Apter is not confirmed by the Senate before noon on January 11 – there is no indication that she will be – Murphy would need to renominate her after the new legislature is sworn in next Tuesday.  He is widely expected to do exactly that.  State Sen.-elect Gordon Johnson (D-Englewood) has also not approved Wainer Apter, but he has already endorsed her candidacy for the Supreme Court.

The 54-year-old Berdote Byrne was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States at age 2 ½.  She grew up in West New York and her later father, Pablo, spent more than 30 years as a waiter at the New York Athletic Club.   After graduating Rutgers University – she was a fellow at the Eagleton Institute of Politics – she received her law degree from Rutgers-Newark.

Gov. Chris Christie nominated Berdote Byrne to the bench in 2013.  She received tenure in 2020.  If she moves to the Supreme Court and gets tenure there in seven years, Berdote Byrne could remain on the bench until she turns 70 in 2037.    She served as a Family Court judge before moving to the General Equity Court, where Berdote Byrne has been the presiding judge since 2019.

From 1999 to 2000, Berdote Byrne served as president of the New Jersey Hispanic Bar Association.  She began her legal career at Pitney, Hardin, Kipp & Szuch before becoming a partner at McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen and Carvelli.

If Wainer Apter and Berdote Byrne are nominated and confirmed, a majority of the seven seats on the New Jersey Supreme Court would be held by women.  Murphy will have nominated three women, including Fabiana Pierre-Louis, who is the first Black woman to serve on the state’s top court.

That expands Murphy’s flexibility when Justice Barry Albin turns reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 on July 7.

Barring any unexpected retirements, Murphy’s next Supreme Court pick would come in August 2024 when Justice Lee Solomon, a Republican, turns 70.  At that point, Murphy will have named five of the seven justices.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner today elevated Appellate Court Judge Jose L. Fuentes as a temporary Supreme Court Justice to replace LaVecchia until her successor is confirmed by the Senate.

In the event that Fernandez-Vina’s seat is not filled by February 15, the senior presiding judge of the appellate court, Clarkson S. Fisher, Jr., would likely be elevated to the Supreme Court – although Rabner has some leeway on this.    Fisher faces mandatory retirement on November 29.

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