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Former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman

N.J. Supreme Court: The Whitman Court

By David Wildstein, June 07 2020 10:08 pm

By the time Tom Kean left office in January 1989, the oldest member of the New Jersey Supreme Court was Robert Clifford, who would not reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 until 1994.

With no unanticipated vacancies, Gov. Jim Florio became the second governor in under the new State Constitution to make no appointments to the top court.

Florio would have to win a second term to replace Clifford and Chief Justice Robert Wilentz, who would turn 70 in early 1997.

But Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase gave Republicans a path to regain the governorship, with Christine Todd Whitman winning by 26,093 votes, 49.33%-49.29%.

Whitman, whose political career was on a national trajectory during her first year as governor, made history in 1994 by nominating the first black Supreme Court Justice in New Jersey history.

James H. Coleman, Jr., the 61-year-old son of a sharecropper, had spent more than 25 years as a judge.  He started out as a Worker’s Compensation Court Judge, moved up to the Superior Court, and had spent more than a dozen years as an appellate court judge.

Whitman was politically strategic with the Coleman nominee.  Clifford was a Democrat and while Whitman could have shifted the partisan balance of the New Jersey Supreme Court from a 4-3 Democratic majority, she knew that Wilentz would reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1999.

Had Whitman named a Republican to replace Coleman, she might have been boxed in to either elevate Marie Garibaldi or Gary Stein to Chief Justice, name another Democrat to the post, or breaking the tradition of partisan balance.

She might have been able to pull that off.  Republicans had a 24-16 majority in the State Senate at the time, and seven of the GOP senators still there had voted against Wilentz’s confirmation eight years earlier.

Picking Coleman, a moderate Democrat who had never really been involved in partisan politics, she preserved her option to nominate a Republican as Chief Justice.

Batting cancer, the 69-year-old Wilentz told Whitman in June that he was stepping down on July 1, 1996.  He died three weeks later at his apartment in New York, seven months before he would have reached the mandatory retirement age.

The day after Wilentz spoke to Whitman, the first woman governor of New Jersey nominated the state’s first woman attorney general to become the first woman to serve as chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Whitman’s pick was Deborah Poritz, 59, a former chief counsel to Gov. Thomas Kean and the state attorney general for the last 2 ½ years.

Poritz was confirmed by the State Senate seven days after her nomination and took office on July 10.

New Jersey became the 13th state to have a woman lead a Supreme Court.

Associate Justice Stewart Pollack decided to retire in 1999, at age 67, giving Whitman the chance to fill another Republican seat on the top court.

Pollack told Whitman in February of his intention to retire in September, and she wasted no time in nominating Peter Verniero to the seat.

The 40-year-old Verniero had served as executive director of the Republican State Committee, chief counsel to Whitman, and as Poritz’s replacement as attorney general.  He had been one of Clifford’s law clerks.

Pollack, a Republican, had been nominated by Democratic Gov. Brendan Byrne and had held several posts in his administration, including special counsel in the governor’s office.

The confirmation of Verniero to the Supreme Court became a battle.

The New Jersey State Bar Association, which reviews judicial nominees under a compact designed by Gov. Richard Hughes in the 1960s, deemed Verniero “unqualified” for the top court.

Verniero became entangled in a scandal involving allegations that the New Jersey State Police systematically stopped and searched Black drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike.  As state attorney general, the State Police Superintendent reported to him.

During his Senate confirmation hearings for a seat on the top court in 1999, Verniero faced fierce questioning over his role in racial profiling.  Every Democrat in the Republican-controlled State Senate voted against his confirmation.

When the nomination came before the full Senate for an up-or-down vote, Verniero was confirmed by the bare minimum, 21-18, after a four-hour vote.

Three Republican senators – Jack Sinagra (R-East Brunswick), Robert Littell (R-Franklin) and Robert Martin (R-Morris Plains) – voted against Verniero’s confirmation.  Whitman was able to move two other Republicans, State Sens. Henry McNamara (R-Wyckoff) and Leonard Connors (R-Surf City), into Verniero’s column the night before the vote.

In June, Whitman was able to make another unexpected Supreme Court nomination when Associate Justice Alan Handler announced that he would retire early.  Handler was 67.

Whitman announced that she was dropping the Hughes Compact and would not consult the state Bar Association on her pick.

The short list for Handler’s successor came down to two Democrats for a Democratic seat: Virginia Long and Stephen Skillman, both longtime appellate court judges and fairly safe candidates for a swift Senate confirmation.

Long had served in Byrne administration as Commissioner of Banking and as Director of Consumer Affairs and had been a judge since 1978.  She had been Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s student at Rutgers Law School.

Skillman served in the Byrne administration as director of the Division of Law in the Attorney General’s office and was named to the bench in 1981.

Whitman moved swiftly for a third time, nominating Long just days later.

Along with Garibaldi and Poritz, the Supreme Court had three women.

In 2000, Whitman nominated her fifth and sixth justices when Garibaldi decided to retire at age 65 and Daniel J. O’Hern reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

O’Hern was the last remaining justice to have been named to the top court by Byrne.

To replace Garibaldi, the first woman to serve on the New Jersey Supreme Court, Whitman nominated Jaynee LaVecchia, a former Division of Law director who was serving in the cabinet as Commissioner of Banking and insurance.

LaVecchia’s 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.

For the O’Hern seat, Whitman again considered Skillman and Cuff, as well as the first Latina Justice, Zulima Farber.  John Wallace, an appellate court judge from South Jersey, was also one of the names considered for the open Democratic seat.

But the early front-runner to replace O’Hern got the seat: James Zazzali, a former New Jersey Attorney General under Byrne.  Whitman had worked with Zazzali when she picked him to help recruit a new State Police Superintendent after the racial profiling scandal.

That left Stein as the only one of the seven New Jersey Supreme Court Justices not named by Whitman, and the first time the entire top court had been nominated by a Republican governor since Alfred Driscoll appointed William J. Brennan Jr. in 1951.

Next: The McGreevey and Corzine Courts

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