When the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the release of a notorious cop killer last week, the deciding vote was cast by Jose L. Fuentes, a onetime Hudson County political insider with ambitions for high public office, who is on temporary assignment on the state’s top court.
This is the second time in six months that Fuentes, who has never been appointed to a post higher than Superior Court Judge, cast the pivotal vote to allow a high-profile alleged killer to go free. In December, Fuentes was called up to the Supreme Court to break a 3-3 deadlock on a vote to overturn the conviction of Michelle Lodzinski for the murder of her six-year-old son, Timothy Wiltsey.
As the senior appellate court judge, Fuentes is serving as an interim associate justice while Gov. Phil Murphy continues a 14-month-old confirmation fight with the Democratic-controlled State Senate over his nominee for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court, Rachel Wainer Apter. The seven-member New Jersey Supreme Court now has two vacancies, with a third coming up on July 7, unless Murphy and the Senate reach a resolution.
The cop killer, Sundiata Acoli, a former Black Liberation Army member once known as Clark Edward Squire, was involved in perhaps the most infamous assassination of a New Jersey law enforcement official in state history. Along with Joanne Chesimard (now known as Assata Shakur), Acoli was convicted of gunning down State Trooper Werner Foerster after being pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. Chesimard escaped from the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in 1970 and is now lives in Cuba, where she has been granted political asylum.
In a 3-2 vote, with Fuentes voting with the majority, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered Acoli, now 85 and suffering from dementia, to be released from prison. Gov. Phil Murphy, acting Attorney General Matt Platkin and lawmakers from both parties slammed the court for their decision.
Like many Union City politicians, Fuentes’ career was directly tied to the legendary William Vincent Musto, the powerful mayor and state senator who spent decades as one of the dominant political bosses in North Hudson. In 1991, Fuentes became a judge as part of a political deal to get him out of a race for the State Assembly.
In the early 1980s, Fuentes was an ally of Bob Menendez in a political war with Musto, and for a time worked at Menendez’s Union City law firm.
Menendez, now the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, started out as a teenage aide to Musto. As a 20-year-old student at St. Peter’s College, and with Musto’s support, he became the youngest person to win a seat on the Union City Board of Education in 1974. He later became the school board secretary while attending law school at Rutgers.
But in early 1981, Menendez broke with Musto, who was indicted on federal racketeering and fraud charges that spring – he was accused of taking roughly $500,000 in kickbacks from a school construction project. Menendez and Fuentes — and others — formed an anti-Musto dissident political group, Citizens for Community Action.
As a 24-year-old second year law student at Rutgers, Fuentes challenged a top Musto lieutenant, John Powers, the school board president. Menendez endorsed Fuentes, who ran a strong race against the Musto machine.
Musto was convicted on March 26, 1982 – Menendez testified against him at his five-month-long trial — just as voters were preparing for April school board elections and a May contest for Union City Commissioner. Musto was seeking re-election. (Powers, Musto’s co-defendant, was also convicted.)
Fuentes ran again for the Union City Board of Education in 1982 as part of an anti-Musto Alliance ’82 slate that included full tickets for school board and city commissioner.
Donald Scarinci, a 25-year-old Seton Hall law student who had run Menendez’s campaign for student body president at Union Hill High School, signed on to run with Fuentes. Scarinci had served as an aide to Musto and was Union City’s public information officer while in law school; Scarinci was fired in early 1982 after publicly criticizing Musto.
(In 1977, while Scarinci and Fuentes were classmates at Montclair State University, Scarinci wrote a story for the New York Times about Fuentes, who was born in Cuba and stricken with polio as a child.)
Also joining the Alliance ’82 school board slate were Karin Highton, whose husband, Thomas, a former city commissioner, had been terminated by Musto as the Union City Superintendent of Schools, and Joseph Sivo, whom Musto sacked as a supervisor at the Union City Day Care program.
Two weeks after Musto’s conviction, his slate captured three of the four Board of Education seats. The lone Alliance ’82 winner was Fuentes, who ousted incumbent Carl Mirasola by 14 votes. (Scarinci, who lost, would later build a hugely influential North Jersey law firm and became a respected constitutional law expert. He is one of the most consequential Hudson insiders of his generation.)
The Alliance ’82 city commissioner slate was headed by Menendez and included Highton, incumbent Commissioner Ronald Dario, Union City Democratic Municipal Chairman Bruce Walter, and Julia Valdivia, who was Musto’s top liaison to the Hispanic community.
Musto was sentenced to seven years in federal prison on Monday, May 10, 1982. (A 16-year-old political junkie, Brian P. Stack, cut school that day to watch the sentencing; Stack, the mayor for 22 years and also the chairman of the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee, was re-elected mayor last week with 99.9% of the vote.)
The following day, voters in Union City re-elected him and his slate. While Musto came in fifth in a race for five seats, he received about approximately 600 more votes than Highton, who came in sixth, and about 1,100 votes ahead of Menendez.
Soon after the election, a judge removed Musto from office. Musto continued to run the city from prison – his allies, first Robert Botti and then Arthur Wichert, became mayor. Nicholas LaRocca, a 69—year-old Union City attorney and close Musto friend, took his State Senate seat.
Fuentes and Menendez become rivals
That left Fuentes as the sole winner in the fight to topple the Musto machine.
After law school, Fuentes joined a small law firm Menendez had opened in Union City as an associate. He was viewed as a smart, hard-working, and a tough adversary by attorneys who were up against him.
Menendez came back in 1986 and led a slate that toppled the Musto regime. He became mayor of Union City and was elected to the State Assembly in 1987 against freshman Republican Assemblyman Jose Arango.
Within a few years, the relationship between Fuentes and Menendez had deteriorated, and the two became rivals. Fuentes opened a storefront law office at 729 10th Street in Union City, and began representing landlords who were sparring with Menendez, who had advocated for tenants.
The two came to blows while Fuentes was representing the Hudson County Hispanic Pastors Association and challenged the constitutionality of a local ordinance that prohibiting outdoor religious services from playing loud music using electric amplifiers. Menendez was forced to repeal the ordinance under an order from U.S. District Court Judge Dickinson Debevoise.
Fuentes was also an election lawyer for Albio Sires (D-West New York), who is now ending a sixteen-year stint in the U.S. House of Representatives.
At the time of the Fuentes/Sires alliance, Sires was a sort of gadfly who had won 27% of the vote as a Republican candidate for Congress against Rep. Frank Guarini (D-Jersey City) in a 1986 campaign managed by young conservative strategist Rick Shaftan. Sires ran multiple times for local office in West New York – he lost by about 40 votes in May 1991 — before finally toppling the political machine of Mayor Anthony DeFino in 1995.
Fuentes led a fight against Menendez’s decision to switch from an elected school board to one appointed by the mayor.
“Who can look you straight in the eye and tell you Bob Menendez doesn’t control this board with all nine trustees members of the mayor’s political organization?” Fuentes told a local newspaper. “Anything to take away democracy and the people’s right to vote.
He also opposed the abolishment of runoff elections in Union City and West New York, and despite an apparent conflict, argued the case before a panel of state appellate court judges while serving as a municipal court judge.
Fuentes’ bid for the legislature
In 1991, Fuentes filed nominating petitions to run as an independent candidate for State Assembly in the 33rd district.
Earlier that year, State Sen. Christopher Jackman (D-West New York), a former Assembly Speaker who had replaced LaRocca in Musto’s old Senate seat in 1983, died of cancer. Menendez moved up to the Senate and Louis Romano, the business administrator for the West New York Board of Education, replaced him in the State Assembly.
Fuentes’ candidacy concerned Menendez, who knew Democrats were about to face a heinous mid-term election in the aftermath of Gov. Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase. (Indeed, Democrats lost 10 Senate seats and 21 Assembly seats in the 1991 general election.)
Republican victories in Hudson were within Menendez’s recent memories. Just six years earlier, on the coattails of Gov. Tom Kean’s landside 70% re-election – he won 65% in Hudson County and carried every municipality — Republicans picked up four Assembly seats. In 1984, Ronald Reagan carried Hudson by nine percentage points and the GOP took out incumbent Democratic freeholders in the North Bergen and Hoboken districts.
Menendez thought Fuentes, a Hispanic independent with support in Union City and West New York, could siphon off enough votes against two white Democratic Assembly candidates — Romano and two-term incumbent Bernard Kenny, Jr. (D-Hoboken) – to help Republicans win.
As a strategic thinker, Menendez knew he would be on the ticket with Florio in 1993 – the Democratic governor’s re-election prospects didn’t look good at the time – and he didn’t want to risk a campaign against a Republican assemblymen.
The threat became greater when Republicans seriously considered swapping out their two Assembly candidates – Antonio Miguelez and Lazaro Guas – and replacing them with Fuentes and Sires.
Fuentes also made no secret of his ambition to become mayor of Union City someday, so it made sense that Menendez wanted to get rid of him.
That led to a deal that put Fuentes on a different career trajectory.
In September, Menendez appointed to the 35-year-old Fuentes to serve as a Union City Municipal Court Judge. In turn, Fuentes dropped his candidacy for State Assembly.
(His exit from the Assembly race was not seamless. A staffer for the New Jersey Secretary of State accepted Fuentes’ withdrawal letter, but never forwarded it to the Hudson County Clerk. As a result, about 8,000 absentee ballots were printed with Fuentes’ name on it – an event that caused an eruption from Menendez – and necessitated the reprinting of the ballots.)
Fuentes originally wanted a Superior Court judgeship, but the State Constitution requires judges to have been a member of the New Jersey Bar for ten years. Fuentes was just a few months short. Menendez agreed to give Fuentes the Municipal Court post and then, in his role as a state senator, move him to the Superior Court when a vacancy was to come up the following year.
Menendez’s career took an unanticipated turn in 1992 when the new congressional map drew a Hispanic majority district that extended to parts of Newark, Elizabeth and Perth Amboy. Menendez was able to muscle Guarini, a seven-term incumbent and former Hudson County Democratic chairman, out of the race.
Before Menendez left the Senate to take his seat in Congress, he made good on his pledge to get Fuentes on the Superior Court and pushed past a bid by DeFino and other North Hudson Democrats to derail it. Florio announced his nomination of Fuentes in November 1992. He was confirmed by the Senate in January 1993 at age 37.
As a Superior Court Judge, Fuentes enjoyed a swift rise through the New Jersey judiciary. He moved from Family Court to Criminal in his third tear on the bench, and Civil four years after that. He was assigned to the appellate court in 2002, at age 46, and became a presiding appellate court judge in 2010. Fuentes doesn’t reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 until 2026.
Over the years, Fuentes campaigned for different jobs without success. He had hoped to be appointed to the New Jersey Supreme Court over the years, and after the 2017 gubernatorial election, he sought, through back channels, to become Murphy’s pick for attorney general.
It’s not immediately clear how long Fuentes will remain as a temporary justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court since Murphy has not signaled his game plan for the Supreme Court.
Wainer Apter, a former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney, has been in limbo since she was nominated to replace retiring Justice Jaynee LaVecchia in March 2021. State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) has used senatorial courtesy to put Wainer Apter in limbo. 3
In her dual role as a Supreme Court nominee and director of the state Division of Civil Rights at the attorney general’s office, Wainer Apter has recused herself on a multitude of issues that could wind up in court.
Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina left the bench on February 14, his 70th birthday, an exit necessitaed by the constitutional mandatory retirement age. Murphy has not yet nominated a replacement, and Chief Justice Stuart Rabner announced two days later that he would not fill the vacancy.
A third justice, Barry Albin, will end his 19-year stint on the Supreme Court on July 7, when he turns 70.
Unless Murphy can get some justices confirmed before the Senate breaks for the summer at the end of June – that’s unlikely, the New Jersey Globe has learned – there will be three vacancies going into the next court session.