At a ceremony today in the Statehouse’s newly reopened rotunda, Gov. Phil Murphy formally announced his nomination of Michael Noriega, an immigration and criminal lawyer and a former public defender, to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Noriega’s impending nomination was first reported by the New Jersey Globe this weekend.
If confirmed by the State Senate, Noriega will fill the seat formerly held by Justice Barry Albin, who reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 last summer. He’ll also restore Hispanic representation to the state’s highest court, more than a year after former Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina departed.
“I pray and hope that I have had a sincerely positive impact on our legal system and the lives of the people that I have represented over these past 20 years,” Noriega said today. “But now my commitment is to all of the people of New Jersey as I bring to bear my knowledge and experience to help shoulder this enormous responsibility that I am honored to undertake. It is with that in mind that I accept this nomination.”
Noriega, the son of Peruvian immigrants, was born in Weehawken and raised in neighboring Union City. After graduating from Rutgers University and Seton Hall Law School, Noriega worked for five years as a public defender in Essex County.
“If confirmed, Michael would make history as the first former public defender to sit on our state’s Supreme Court, which is a big deal,” Murphy said. “Folks, that experience matters. Public defenders see firsthand how the law impacts ordinary people.”
Upon leaving the public defender’s office in 2008, Noriega ran his own law firm for six years before becoming a partner at Bramnick, Rodriguez, Grabas, Arnold & Mangan specializing in criminal and immigration law. The leader of that firm, State Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), had nothing but kind words to say of Noriega today.
“When you meet him, you can feel the love he has for man and mankind,” Bramnick said. “He is a common-sense, smart, and beautiful human being who deserves to be a Supreme Court justice.”
As a resident of Fanwood, Noriega is subject to senatorial courtesy – the unwritten rule that allows state senators to block nominees from their home county or district – from Bramnick and two other Union County senators, Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Linden) and State Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union).
Murphy said in his remarks that Scutari, though he couldn’t make it to the announcement, was a “big fan” of Noriega. And Cryan is unlikely to provide much of an impediment to Noriega either, though he declined to specifically affirm his support for the nomination.
“I’m looking forward to meeting him,” Cryan told the New Jersey Globe. “I’m certainly excited and very glad that the governor has chosen a Hispanic to be a member of the court… We’ll see how the process goes.”
Both Cryan and Senate Judiciary Chair Brian Stack (D-Union City) had been pushing Murphy to put forward a Hispanic nominee ever since Fernandez-Vina retired; Noriega’s nomination satisfies their demands, and has the added bonus of elevating a native of Union City, where Stack is mayor.
All of that means Noriega is likely to face a relatively smooth Senate confirmation process, one that could wrap up before the legislature begins its summer recess at the end of June (and if it doesn’t, Scutari could call a special session over the summer to confirm him). That would put him onto the Supreme Court before it begins its next judicial session in September.
Assuming Noriega is confirmed, Murphy will have chosen four of the court’s seven sitting members, with one more seat opening up in 2024 when Justice Lee Solomon turns 70.
Two of Murphy’s court picks, Fabiana Pierre-Louis and Douglas Fasciale, sailed through the Senate with little opposition in 2020 and 2022, respectively. But the third, Rachel Wainer Apter, faced significantly greater challenges; her nomination was held up for a year and a half by State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale), and a number of senators fretted about her past work at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The governor’s office was finally able to get Wainer Apter through the Senate by pairing her with Fasciale, creating a bipartisan package to assuage senators’ fears.
There was some speculation that Murphy would have to resort to the same tactic to fill Albin’s seat, waiting until Solomon retired and nominating another dual package of nominees. But Noriega – even though he argued several cases before the state Supreme Court on behalf of the ACLU – seemingly has the support to get through the Senate without any complicated dealmaking.
That may be in part because Noriega’s nomination won’t change the ideological balance of the court. He’s a Democrat and is likely to be a liberal-leaning justice, but so was Albin; Wainer Apter, on the other hand, was nominated to replace Christine Todd Whitman appointee Jaynee LaVecchia.
A large number of other candidates were also evaluated for Albin’s seat, most of them Hispanic.
Essex County College general counsel Christine Soto; Appellate Court Judge Lisa Perez Friscia; former New Jersey Hispanic Bar Association President Julia López; former First Assistant Attorney General Ricardo Solano; U.S. Magistrate Judges André Espinosa and Jose Almonte; Superior Court Judges Veronica Allende and Karina Fuentes; and Seton Hall law professor Solangel Maldonado all received consideration for the post.
So too did New Jersey State Bar Association John Keefe, U.S. Magistrate Judge Edward Kiel, and Appellate Court Judge Hany Mawla, but with Latinos now making up more than 20% of New Jersey’s population, Murphy was intent on making sure that the court had a Hispanic member.
Ultimately, Murphy of course went with Noriega, whom he said was cut from the same exemplary cloth as his prior three nominees.
“I know the individuals I nominate to serve on the New Jersey Supreme Court will shape the state for future generations, long after my time in office has come to an end,” Murphy said. “[I’m] proud to put Michael’s name forward today, and I am certain that he will make an outstanding justice.”