The State Senate confirmed two new justices of the state Supreme Court today, but that still leaves the seven-member court with one seat left open: that of former Justice Barry Albin, who turned 70 in July and was required to depart the state judiciary.
State Sen. Brian Stack (D-Union City), whose position as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee guarantees him an important role in any potential nomination, said today that he expects the process to begin in the coming months. If so, that would be something of an improvement from the processes to confirm brand-new Justices Rachel Wainer Apter and Douglas Fasciale, which took 19 and eight months, respectively.
“I’m thinking more in the short term on this,” he said. “I would say, over the next few months, we should be hearing something.”
Stack added that he hoped the eventual nominee would be Hispanic. The court has had no permanent Hispanic members since former Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina departed in February; Fernandez-Vina was replaced just today by Fasciale, who is white.
“Obviously, my preference would be to have a Latino in the seat, or a Latina in the seat,” said Stack, the mayor of majority-Hispanic Union City. “That’s my preference, but we’ll wait to see who the governor nominates.”
State Sen. Joseph Cryan (D-Union) echoed Stack’s call.
“The need for Hispanic representation on the court should be a paramount objective of this administration,” Cryan stated.
Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Linden) was more circumspect, saying only that the nomination was in Gov. Phil Murphy’s hands.
“I do not know where [the governor] is on that process,” Scutari said shortly after the Senate confirmed Wainer Apter and Fasciale. “We wanted to get this logjam done, and we did, and the court’s going to be in good hands now. He’ll be able to take his time, get who he wants, and I look forward to working with him on that.”
Looming over any consideration of a replacement for Albin is the fact that Justice Lee Solomon is also considering heading for the exits. Albin is a Democrat and Solomon a Republican, meaning that nominees to replace them could move through the Senate as a bipartisan pair, just as Wainer Apter and Fasciale did.
With Wainer Apter and Fasciale confirmed, the court currently has three Democrats and three Republicans. Longstanding tradition dictates that there be no more than four members of a given party represented on the court, and Murphy will almost certainly aim for a 4-3 Democratic majority with the nominations he makes.
There’s no guarantee that Solomon will actually retire early, however, and he won’t reach the mandatory retirement age until 2024. If he chooses to stay on the court, the nominee to replace Albin would have to navigate the Senate alone – or the state’s top court will be confronted with another lengthy vacancy.
This story was updated at 6:58 PM with comment from Cryan.