Gov. Phil Murphy will get to make his first appointment to the New Jersey Supreme Court later next year when Justice Walter F. Timpone reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 on November 10.
Murphy must also decide if he will renominate Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina, a Republican appointed by Gov. Chris Christie and the lone Hispanic on the top court. His term expires November 19. If renominated and confirmed, Fernandez-Vina would serve for just fifteen months before his 70th birthday in February 2022.
The conventional wisdom is that Fernandez-Vina will seek reappointment this year so that he can serve until his 70th birthday.
The current Supreme Court has a partisan balance of 3-3, with Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, a registered independent, holding the seventh seat – if that’s the correct classification.
Christie considered LaVecchia as an independent in an unsuccessful bid to add an additional Republican justice, but Senate President Steve Sweeney and other Democrats disagreed.
Democrats put LaVecchia, a former assistant counsel to GOP Gov. Tom Kean and the Commissioner of Banking and Insurance under Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, in the GOP column.
That means Murphy could appoint a Democrat to replace Fernandez-Vina, if he’s willing to upset the apple cart — or if Fernandez-Vina, called Fuzzy by his friends, decides he wants an early retirement.
Just two sitting justices have been denied renomination under the current 1947 State Constitution – both times by Christie.
Christie did not renominate John Wallace in 2010, leaving the state Supreme Court without an African American justice. In 2013, he declined to retain Justice Helen Hoens.
Embattled Justice Peter Verniero retired six years into his seven-year term after it became clear that Gov. James McGreevey would not renominate him.
In 2018, Murphy renominated Justice Anne Patterson, another Republican Christie appointee, to a tenured term that expires in April 2029.
Unless there are an unexpected vacancies, these will be the only Supreme Court nominations Murphy will get to make unless he wins re-election to a second term next year.
Three other justices will turn 70 during the term of the winner of the 2021 gubernatorial election: Barry Albin in July 2022, Lee Solomon in August 2024, and LaVecchia in October 2024.
Albin, a Democrat, was named by McGreevey in 2002, Solomon, a former Republican Assemblyman, by Christie in 2014, and LaVecchia by Whitman in 2000.