Faustino Fernandez-Vina ends his more than eight years as an associate justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court today as he celebrates his 70th birthday, the mandatory retirement age for judges in New Jersey.
Gov. Phil Murphy has not yet nominated a successor to replace Fernandez-Vina on the top court, even though he’s known for more than four years that the seat would become vacant today.
Fernandez-Vina, known by his friends and colleagues as Fuzzy, is a Republican, and Gov. Phil Murphy willing to keep the partisan balance of the court intact if State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) signs off on his other nominee, Rachel Wainer Apter. Wainer Apter was originally nominated to succeed Justice Jaynee LaVecchia 337 days ago.
It is possible that Murphy will not nominate anyone until the State Senate confirms Wainer Apter, or two Supreme Court nominees moved as a package deal.
The governor’s office is vetting several candidates to succeed Fernandez-Vina, including Superior Court Judges Maritza Berdote Byrne and Lisa Miralles Walsh.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner recently elevated Berdote Byrne to a temporary assignment in the appellate division. Miralles Walsh in the assignment judge in Union County.
Until the Senate confirms a replacement for Fernandez-Vina, Rabner will elevate a senior presiding appellate court judge to the top court.
That will bring the total number of interim justices to two, or 28% of the seven-member Supreme Court, following the assignment of Jose L. Fuentes to replace Justice Jaynee LaVecchia until Wainer Apter is confirmed.
Next in line for the Fernandez-Vina seat is Clarkson S. Fisher, Jr., who is the most senior appellate presiding judge after Fuentes. Fisher’s father was an assemblyman from Monmouth County and later a federal judge.
Fernandez-Vina was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2013 after Christie declined to renominate Justice Helen Hoens to a tenured term after seven years on the court.
Hoens, a Republican who had been appointed to the top court by Gov. Jon Corzine, became the second sitting Supreme Court Justice to be denied a tenured term. The first was John E. Wallace, Jr., who was also removed from the top court by Christie.
At the start of 2011, Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto announce that he would not seek reappointment to the bench when his initial seven-year term expired on August 31.
Rivera-Soto, the first Hispanic to serve on the state’s highest court, got in trouble in 2007 when the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct filed an ethics complaint alleging that he abused his post when contacting local officials about an incident involving a family member at a local school. Rivera-Soto had threatened school officials that he would file a criminal complaint against them if they failed to fact and later called the Haddonfield police chief to push for a criminal complaint against a student at the school.
He also called the judge hearing the complaint, and the county prosecutor.
Rivera was later censured by the court for his actions.
Christie later pulled the nomination of Anne Patterson for Wallace’s seat and renominated her for the one Soto was vacating. Senate President Steve Sweeney, who was blocking any successor to Wallace, then allowed the Senate to consider and confirm Patterson, sixteen months after her original appointment. She took her seat on September 1, 2011.
Hoens appeared to be campaigning to save her job when some of her votes on the court moved a little to the right, but Christie decided not to renominate her.
Christie claimed her wanted to prevent Hoens from being embarrassed by the Senate rejecting a sitting justice, but in reality, he didn’t want her back.
Something that made that even more uncomfortable: Hoens’ husband, former Star-Ledger judiciary reporter Robert Schwaneberg, was on Christie’s staff.
Faustino Fernandez-Vina, then the 61-year-old Camden County assignment judge and a Republican, to replace Hoens. Sweeney accepted Fernandez-Vina, and his nomination sailed through the State Senate.
Christie’s appointment of Fernandez-Vina increased Hispanic representation on the Supreme Court by one to one. It also restored South Jersey two seats.
Fernandez-Vina came up for reappointment in late 2020 and Murphy renominated him.
This story was updated at 10:25 a.m. on February 17 to correct an error: Justice LaVecchia’s temporary replacement on the Supreme Court is Jose Fuentes, not Julio Fuentes.