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New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Jaynee LaVecchia. (Photo: New Jersey Courts).

LaVecchia ends 21-year stint on N.J. Supreme Court

Last member of the Whitman Court retiring today

By David Wildstein, December 31 2021 1:55 pm

Today is the last day in office for Jaynee LaVecchia, who is retiring after as an associate justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.

LaVecchia is the senior member of the state’s top court and is the last member of a Supreme Court largely reshaped by Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to leave the bench.  She is the longest-serving woman justice in state history.

LaVecchia announced on March 8 that she would step down on August 30, but agreed to stay up to four more months after Gov. Phil Murphy’s nominee to replace her had not yet been confirmed by the State Senate.  Her decision was unexpected, since LaVecchia does not reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 until October 2024.

One week later, Murphy said he would nominate Rachel Wainer Apter, a former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, to replace LaVecchia.  Without signoff from State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) necessary under the unwritten rule of senatorial courtesy, Wainer Apter’s nomination has stalled.

Wainer Apter’s nomination expires a noon on January 11, when the new session of the legislature begins, and Murphy was either renominate her or submit a new name.

Until a replacement for LaVecchia is confirmed, the appellate court judge with the most seniority – Jose L. Fuentes — becomes the seventh justice.  But Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has some flexibility on adding a temporary justice. New Jersey is the only state where a seat on the Supreme Court can be filled by a lower court judge.

Fuentes was temporarily elevated to the Supreme Court this month and broke a 3-3 tie to overturn the conviction of Michelle Lodzinski, who had already served five years in prison for the 1991 murder of her six-year-old son, Timothy Wiltsey.  Among LaVecchia’s last decisions was in support of toppling Lodzinski’s conviction.

LaVecchia’ public service career began in 1984 when the 29-year-old attorney became a deputy state attorney general.  She became an assistant counsel to Gov. Thomas Kean in 1986 and later became deputy chief counsel.  Kean nominated her to serve as chief judge for the Office of Administrative Law in 1989, a post she held for five years.

Whitman put LaVecchia in her cabinet as the Commissioner of Banking and Insurance in 1998.

On Christmas Eve 1999, Whitman announced her nomination of LaVecchia, then 45, to the Supreme Court.  She replaced Marie Garibaldi, the first woman to serve as a state Supreme Court Justice.

LaVecchia’s late husband, Michael Cole, a former chief counsel to Kean, had also been considered for the Garibaldi seat, as well as appellate court judge Mary Catherine Cuff and two Superior Court assignment judges, Eugene Serpentelli of Ocean and Anthony Gibson of Atlantic.

The New Jersey State Senate confirmed LaVecchia on January 10, 2000, just seventeen days after her nomination, by a 35-0 vote.

Gov. Jon Corzine renominated her for a tenured seat in 2007.

LaVecchia grew up in Wayne, played on two state championship basketball teams for Wayne Valley High School, and worked as parts washer at the Curtiss-Wright factory in Wood-Ridge, where her father, Michael, worked.

The departure of LaVecchia leaves Barry Albin, who was nominated by Gov. James E. McGreevey, as the senior associate justice.  Albin will reach the mandatory retirement age in July.

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