Gov. Phil Murphy said today that he had “no news to report” on the process to nominate a replacement for former Supreme Court Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina, who reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 yesterday, meaning that the Supreme Court will work with a complement of only six members for the foreseeable future.
He added that he had no specific explanation for why the nomination process for Fernandez-Vina’s seat has proceeded differently than other recent Supreme Court openings, when Murphy nominated a candidate well in advance of the justice’s retirement.
“There’s no reason one way or the other,” Murphy said. “We want to make sure we get this right.”
The governor also did not comment on the process to confirm Rachel Wainer Apter, whom he nominated to fill former Supreme Court Justice Jaynee LaVecchia’s seat last spring; with Wainer Apter held in limbo since then, the court has elevated Superior Court Judge Jose Fuentes as a temporary member.
But Chief Justice Stuart Rabner announced today that, in order to preserve the partisan balance of the court, he would not be elevating another member of the Superior Court to take the spot of Fernandez-Vina, a Republican. Though the judge next in line, Superior Court Judge Clarkson Fisher, was nominated as a Republican, he has since become a Democrat.
Shortly after Rabner’s announcement, the state bar association released a statement calling on Murphy to efficiently bring the court to its full cohort of seven members.
“The New Jersey State Bar Association urges that the Governor nominate candidates to the bench as soon as possible and work diligently with legislators to ensure the successful confirmation of each, in the way the framers of our Constitution intended,” the association wrote. “The Supreme Court is the pinnacle of our independent, third branch of government and all efforts should be taken to ensure it can return to full strength as soon as possible.”
The leading candidate to replace Fernandez-Vina is Superior Court Judge Maritza Berdote Byrne, who was temporarily elevated to the appellate court last week and who would be the first Latina to serve on the state’s top court.