Home>Highlight>The path to the Supreme Court for 47 New Jerseyans

New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Arthur Vanderbilt. (Photo: New Jersey State Library).

The path to the Supreme Court for 47 New Jerseyans

By David Wildstein, May 13 2023 5:54 pm

If the State Senate confirms Michael Noriega as an associate justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, he will become Gov. Phil Murphy’s fourth pick and the 47th person to serve on the highest court in the state.

Gov. Alfred Driscoll picked the first seven New Jersey Supreme Court members in late 1947, months after voters approved a new State Constitution that completely revamped an antiquated and obsolete judiciary.

Since then, every governor but Richard Hughes, Jim Florio, Donald DiFrancesco, and Richard Codey. have had an opportunity to nominate justices to New Jersey’s top court – some have been more impactful than others.

The 1947 Constitution unseated the nine members of the Supreme Court.  Driscoll retained five and named two new Justices.

He dumped four justices: Frederic Colie (R-Short Hills), 53, named to the court in 1941 when Justice Thomas Trenchard retired after nearly 36 years; Ralph Donges (D-Camden), 73, a close ally and advisor to Woodrow Wilson as governor and president, a judge since 1920 and a justice since 1930; Howard Eastwood (R-Burlington City), 64, a former Senate President; and Joseph Perskie (D-Atlantic City), 63, the grandfather of future State Sen. Steven Perskie and justice since 1933.

Donges and Colie accepted appointments to the newly-formed Superior Court.  So did Nathan Jacobs (R-Livingston), 45, who had served for just a few months on the Supreme Court between the time the new Constitution was approved and the seating of the new court.

Arthur Vanderbilt, 60, a former American Bar Association President and Dean of New York University Law School, had led a reform movement in Essex County Republican politics and was the architect of the judiciary component of the 1947 Constitutional Convention.  Driscoll named him as the state’s first Chief Justice.

The first six associate justices had heavy political resumes:

* Henry Ackerson, Jr. (D-Keyport) served as Democratic State Senator from Monmouth County, as counsel to the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders, and as a municipal attorney to several towns in Monmouth and Middlesex Counties.  He spent 24 years as a circuit court judge and five years on the Court of Errors and Appeals.

*Albert Burling (R-Pennsauken), 57, had been a Republican State Senator from Camden County before becoming a circuit court judge in 1942 and a Supreme Court Justice in 1947.

* Clarence Case (R-Somerville), 71,  spent eleven years as a Republican State Senator from Somerset County and was Senate President in 1920.  He spent one week as acting governor in 1920 and was the Chief Justice of the old Supreme Court before New Jersey’s new State Constitution was approved.  Case’s nephew, Clifford P. Case, served in the U.S. Senate for 24 years.

* Harry Heher, 59, had served as Mercer County Democratic Chairman from 1915 to 1922 and as Democratic State Chairman from 1922 to 1932 and became an associate justice of the top court in 1933.

* A. Dayton Oliphant (R-Princeton), 61, was a Republican assemblyman and the Mercer County Prosecutor before becoming a circuit court in 1927 and to the Supreme Court in 1946.

* William Wachenfeld, 59, a former Essex County Democratic Chairman, won fame when he prosecuted mobster Dutch Schultz on murder charges.   He spent 11 years as the Essex County Prosecutor but lost two State Senate bids.  He had been named to the Supreme Court in 1946.

Driscoll made two more top court nominations before he left office after the 1953 election: Ackerson and Case resigned in 1952 and were replaced by Jacobs and William Jr. Brennan, Jr.

Brennan, 45,  had some political lineage: his Irish immigrant father served as a Newark Commissioner from 1927 to 1930 and ran the Public Safety Department.  Driscoll named him to the Superior Court in 1949.  He spent a little more than four years on the state bench before President Dwight Eisenhower nominated him to serve as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1956.  Brennan spent almost 34 years in that post.

The  Meyner Court

Gov. Robert Meyner had an opportunity to affect a complete makeover of the New Jersey Supreme Court during his two terms as governor, nominating seven justices between 1954 and 1962 on a court established just six years before.

Meyner’s first pick came in 1956 when he nominated Joseph Weintraub (D-Orange) to replace William J. Brennan.

Weintraub, 48, was Meyner’s appointee to the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor when he took office in 1954 and became a Superior Court Judge in 1955.

Ten months later, after Vanderbilt died in office, Meyner elevated Weintraub to Chief Justice, a post he held for sixteen years.

To maintain the traditional bi-partisan balance of the New Jersey Supreme Court, Meyner nominated former Senate President Hayden Proctor (R-Neptune) to fill Weintraub’s seat as an Associate Justice.  The 54-year-old Proctor had been an assemblyman, circuit court judge, delegate to the 1947 Constitutional Convention, and had been named to the Superior Court by Driscoll in 1948.

Meyner nominated John Francis (D-South Orange) to the top court in 1957 following the retirement of Dayton Oliphant.  This became the first time a majority of the supreme court were Democrats.

Francis, 54, was the Democratic nominee for Congress in 1944, losing 52%-46% to U.S. Rep. Frank Sundstrom (R-East Orange).  Francis, 54, had lost a race for State Assembly in 1940 – one of his running mates was future House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino — and served as a South Orange Village Trustee from 1942 to 1946.  Driscoll nominated him to serve as an Essex County Court Judge in 1952.

Following the retirements of Heher and Wachenfeld in 1959 – Wachenfeld had considered leaving the court to run for governor in 1949 and 1953 — Meyner nominated two new Democrats to the Supreme Court: C. Thomas Schettino, 52, who had served as a top aide to Governor Charles Edison; and Bound Brook attorney Frederick Hall, 51, who had been Vanderbilt’s law partner.  Both had served as Superior Court judges.

Albert Burling retired in 1950, and Meyner named Vincent Haneman, a 58-year-old former Republican assemblyman and Brigantine mayor who was a political ally of State Sen. Frank “Hap” Farley, the Atlantic County political boss.

By the time Meyner left office, six of the seven justices – all but Nathan Jacobs – had been named by him.

Most of Meyner’s top court nominees were relatively young.  Because of that, Gov. Richard Hughes made no appointments to the Supreme Court during his eight-year stint following Meyner; Hughes is the only two-term governor in state history who left office without picking a Supreme Court Justice.

The Cahill Court

After Republican William T. Cahill was elected governor in 1969, the Supreme Court Justices named by Gov. Robert Meyner reached retirement age.  New Jersey’s top court began to see some turnover.

Cahill made his first Supreme Court appointment in 1971 when Haneman retired.  His pick was another Republican, Worrall F. Mountain, 60, an appellate court judge from Morris County whose father had been the GOP mayor of East Orange when Woodrow Wilson was the governor of New Jersey.

Francis and Schettino, both Democrats, retired in the fall of 1972.

The early front-runners for the two seats were two members of Cahill’s cabinet: Attorney General George Kugler and Robert Clifford, the Commissioner of Institutions and Agencies (now Human Services).

Kugler became involved in one of the multiple scandals that shook the Cahill administration.  He was accused of covering up allegations that Secretary of State Paul Sherwin delivered a highway contract in exchange for a $10,000 contribution to the Republican State Committee.    Kugler was cleared of any wrongdoing by the State Commission of Investigation – although his hopes of going to the Supreme Court were over.  Sherwin went to prison.

At the time, one of the potential Supreme Court nominees was Brendan Byrne, a 48-year-old politically connected Superior Court Judge who has served as Chief Justice Joseph Weintraub’s law clerk.  Byrne received considerable attention when an organized crime wiretap called him the “judge that couldn’t be bought.” Still, Byrne was well known in the statehouse as Meyner’s former Executive Secretary (now Chief of Staff) and as a former President of the Board of Public Utilities and Essex County Prosecutor.

In the middle of a fierce Republican primary fight against Rep. Charles Sandman (R-Erma), Cahill took six months to make his pick.  He nominated his 47-year-old chief counsel, Republican Pierre Garven, and Mark Sullivan, a 62-year-old appellate court judge.

Both nominees came from well-known Hudson County political families: Garven’s father was mayor of Bayonne from 1906 to 1910 and again from 1915 to 1919; Sullivan’s father was a judge who once ran for Mayor of Jersey City, and his father-in-law was a five-term Democratic Congressman from Jersey City.

Two weeks after Cahill nominated Garven and Sullivan, Weintraub announced that he would retire at the end of the year – a move that would be moved up to September 1. Now 65, Weintraub decided sixteen years as Chief Justice was enough and wanted to travel.

Cahill spent four weeks considering his options and nominated Garven for Chief Justice and Clifford, a Democrat, to replace Garven.

Garven had taken his seat on the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice in May, less than two weeks before Cahill lost the Republican primary.  He became Chief Justice on September 1.

In June, Proctor turned 70, and Cahill replaced him with another Republican, Superior Court Judge Morris Pashman, 61, a former Mayor of Passaic.

On October 16, Garven suffered a massive stroke and died three days later – after just 49 days as Chief Justice.

Eighteen days later, Byrne was elected governor with 67% of the vote in a Watergate landslide, giving Democrats a 29-10 majority in the State Senate.

Still, Republicans still controlled the Senate until January, and Cahill briefly considered nominating Pashman as the Chief Justice.

Instead, Cahill went in a completely different direction and nominated   Hughes, a Democrat who had served as governor from 1962 to 1970.

He waited until the day after the gubernatorial election to announce his choice.

While Byrne publicly endorsed the pick, privately, he was frustrated by it.  Elected with a massive mandate, Byrne wanted to choose his own Chief Justice.  Cahill outmaneuvered him by picking Hughes, who was well-liked by some Republican Senators in the more congenial 1970s. Democrats had no choice but to embrace his nomination.

But by nominating Hughes, the outgoing Republican Governor shifted the Supreme Court to a 4-3 Democratic majority just as a new Democratic Governor and legislature were about to take office.

The Byrne Court

Gov. Brendan Byrne’s first opportunity to nominate a Supreme Court Justice came in early 1975 when Jacobs turned 70.  He asked former chief justice, Weintraub, to vet candidates for the post.

His pick was Sidney Schreiber, 60, a former War Crimes prosecutor for the U.S. Army after World War II who drafted the first cases against Nazi soldiers at German concentration camps.  He served as general counsel to New Jersey Natural Gas when Cahill had named him to the Superior Court three years earlier.

Schreiber had also been Weintraub’s law partner.

Byrne denied that he picked Schreiber to replace Jacobs because he wanted to maintain Jewish representation on the state’s highest court.   He did acknowledge that it was a Republican seat and Schreiber was a Republican.

A few weeks after the Schreiber nomination, Hall announced he would retire three years early.  That gave Byrne his first Democratic appointment to the Supreme Court.

His first choice was State Sen. Stephen Wiley (D-Morris Township), a brainy liberal Democrat who chaired the Senate Education Committee – he sponsored a controversial school aid bill — and was one of Byrne’s top allies in the legislature.

Wiley, 47, had also served as chief counsel to Gov. Robert Meyner in 1960 – Byrne had earlier served as Meyner’s executive secretary (now chief of staff).  When Meyner left office in January 1962, the two formed a law firm, Meyner and Wiley.

Byrne held off nominating Wiley until early 1976 as he waited for the Supreme Court to decide if Wiley’s landmark Thorough and Efficient (T&E) law was constitutional.

A three-way split by the top court – some justices dissented for different reasons from a rare unsigned court opinion – eventually led to the creation of a state income tax.

The formal nomination of Wiley didn’t come until August 1976.

The timeline for Democrats was funky.

Byrne had hoped the Senate would confirm Wiley when they returned into session on September 13.

That didn’t appeal to the Senate Democratic leadership.  Had Wiley resigned before September 24  to join the court, it would have triggered a November 1976 special election to fill his Senate seat – a race they were almost certain to lose.

The other senator from Morris County, Republican James Vreeland (R-Montville), threatened to use senatorial courtesy to block Wiley’s nomination.

Vreeland faced pressure from Republicans who wanted to pick up the Senate seat.  Assemblyman John Dorsey (R-Boonton), former Assemblyman Albert Merck (R-Mendham), and former Rep. Joseph Maraziti (R-Boonton) all began preparing for a sudden Senate race.

Ultimately, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman James P. Dugan (D-Bayonne), the Democratic State Chairman, refused to allow Vreeland to exercise courtesy over a sitting senator.  The  Senate subsequently decided that their members and former members were not subject to the unwritten courtesy rules.

But courtesy was not Wiley’s biggest problem.

He faced a colossal roadblock when political opponents cited a provision in the State Constitution barring legislators from taking a job after voting to raise the pay of that post during the current legislative term.  Wiley had voted to raise judicial salaries in 1974, his first year in the Senate.

(Another senator, John Horn (D-Camden), the head of the rubber workers union, faced a similar obstacle after Byrne named him Commissioner of Labor.  Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti won his seat in a 1976 special election.) but to avoid the controversy, Byrne instead called him assistant commissioner and, from there, acting commissioner.  Horn wound up making $4,200-per-year more that way.

Attorney General William Hyland issued an opinion that Wiley could serve if he didn’t take the $3,000-a-year pay raise that went to other justices.

The Morris County Taxpayers Association and Vreeland didn’t buy that and filed a lawsuit to block Wiley’s ascent to the top court.

The Senate voted 30-5 on September 15 to confirm Wiley’s nomination.  Just four Republican senators and independent Anthony Imperiale voted against him.

Still, Wiley agreed to wait to take the oath as an Associate Justice until the courts settled the issue.  He didn’t resign either but announced that he would not participate in Senate votes until his situation was resolved.

Superior Court Judge George Schoch ruled that Wiley’s appointment was unconstitutional.

An appeal went directly to the Supreme Court, which in March 1977 ruled 4-3 to uphold Schoch’s decision.  Mountain, Clifford, and Sullivan were in the majority, along with Superior Court Judge Lawrence Carton, who temporarily filled the seat Wiley was supposed to get.  (Carton, a former Republican mayor of Middletown, had been Vanderbilt’s law partner; his son, Peter Carton, is the longtime Middletown Republican Municipal Chairman.)  Hughes, Pashman, and Schreiber were in the minority.

On the same day the Supreme Court announced its decision, Byrne picked his 45-year-old chief counsel, Alan B. Handler, to replace Hall.

Handler had served as First Assistant Attorney General in the Hughes administration.  Hughes had nominated him to serve as a Superior Court Judge in 1968, and he had been elevated to the appellate division in 1973.

In mid-1976, Handler left the bench to replace Lewis B. Kaden as Byrne’s chief counsel.

The Senate confirmed Handler with little difficulty after the Supreme Court seat had been vacant for over two years.

Wiley returned to the Senate after a lengthy absence.  He ran for re-election in 1977, but Dorsey beat him by a 54%-46% margin.

Byrne’s next Supreme Court picks came in 1979.  Mountain turned 70 in June and Hughes, the Chief Justice, in August.

For the first time, there was talk about Byrne breaking a glass ceiling by nominating the first woman or black justice.

New Jersey Public Advocate Stanley Van Ness was mentioned as a Supreme Court candidate, as were three women: Superior Court Judges Virginia Long, Byrne’s former banking commissioner; Sonia Morgan; and Sylvia Pressler.

There was also talk of another Wiley nomination; the constitutional prohibition that blocked him the first time was gone out of the legislature.

Another name on Byrne’s list, Dickinson Debevoise, was nominated by President Jimmy Carter as a U.S. District Court Judge.

Byrne’s special counsel at the time, 46-year-old Stewart Pollock, was a registered Republican and his frequent tennis partner, and that made him an easy pick to succeed Worrall.   The governor had used the same move during his first term when he nominated Pollock, a left-of-center Republican, to the GOP seat on the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and the State Commission of Investigation.

Pollock had faced criticism for taking a job with Public Service Electric and Gas after leaving his BPU post, and the two Republican senators from Morris County – Vreeland and Dorsey threatened to block his nomination — but not enough to cause him any real political trouble.

For a while, it looked like Handler and Wiley were the leading candidates to replace Hughes as Chief Justice.

Byrne was anxious to move the Supreme Court to the ideological bent of the court to the left after six years of Hughes, who was widely viewed as a moderate.

His pick for Chief Justice was a surprise: Robert Wilentz, 52, a former assemblyman from Perth Amboy whose father, David Wilentz, prosecuted the Lindbergh kidnapping case as state attorney general and spent decades as the Middlesex County Democratic boss.

Wilentz was viewed as an intellectual giant, a young assemblyman, and the head of one of the state’s most influential law firms.

The Senate confirmed Wilentz by a 37-1 vote, with only Essex County Republican James Wallwork (R-Short Hills) voting against him.  Wallwork had questioned whether Wilentz lived in Perth Amboy or a New York City apartment he owned.

The vote on Pollock was 38-0.

Byrne made his fifth and final Supreme Court appointment in 1981 when Sullivan reached his mandatory retirement age in August, three months before the gubernatorial election to pick his successor.

There was never any doubt that Byrne intended to make the pick, especially with Republicans aiming to elect a governor and take control of the State Senate.

There was again speculation that Byrne would name the court’s first woman or black justice.

Van Ness was on the shortlist again, along with Superior Court Judge William Walls – later a federal judge – and Raymond Brown, a famed criminal defense attorney.   Pressler and Morgan were again considered; so were Superior Court Judges Marilyn Loftus, from Byrne’s hometown of West Orange, and Florence Peskoe, a family court judge from Monmouth County.

And Wiley was now back on the shortlist again.

In the end, Byrne would again promote from within.

Sullivan was replaced by Daniel J. O’Hern, 51, Byrne’s chief counsel.  O’Hern had clerked for Justice Brennan He had been the mayor of Red Bank and Byrne’s Commissioner of Environmental Protection before moving to the front office.

The Kean Court

Brendan Byrne’s Supreme Court makeover — a Chief Justice and three younger than usual Associate Justices — plus Cahill’s pick of 49-year-old Clifford — meant that Republican Gov. Thomas Kean would get to name only two Supreme Court Justices during his eight years as governor.

Nine months into Kean’s first year as governor, he got to nominate an Associate Justice when Pashman reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

One year earlier, President Ronald Reagan nominated the first woman justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Byrne had flirted with the idea of putting the first woman on the New Jersey Supreme Court twice, but now Kean was finally under some pressure to do that.

The New Jersey Women’s Political Caucus entered the fray by submitting four names — all Republicans, like Pashman — for Kean’s consideration: Superior Court Judge Rosemary Higgins Cass, a former Catholic Charities social worker; Julia Asheby, an appellate court judge from Monmouth County; U.S. Magistrate Serena Peretti; and former Weehawken Municipal Court Judge Marie Garibaldi, the first woman to serve as president of the New Jersey Bar Association.

Kean was also considering two men: Atlantic County Assignment Judge Philip Gruccio for a court with no justices from South Jersey since Vincent Haneman retired in 1971; and Gary Stein, one of his top policy advisors and the head of his 1981 gubernatorial campaign in Bergen County.

Peretti had some pull.  Her brother, Peter Peretti, was the managing partner at one of the state’s most influential law firms, and her father had been a judge in Passaic County.  Peretti had won a Passaic city school board seat at age 28 and three years later, in 1959, had run a strong race as a Republican State Assembly candidate in Passaic County.  The Peretti’s had backed Kean’s father, Rep. Robert W. Kean (R-Livingston), in the 1958 GOP primary for U.S. Senate.

Kean went with Garibaldi, a 47-year-old tax attorney — she was a partner at the law firm Peter Peretti ran — and has served as co-chair of Kean’s 1981 campaign for governor.  Her mother was the bookkeeper at the Clam Broth House, once a Hoboken legend.

Garibaldi sailed through her Senate confirmation, 37-0, becoming the first woman to serve on the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Schreiber retired in 1984, creating Kean’s second top-court opening,

The South Jersey legal community pushed for representation, but Kean went with a member of his staff, Stein, the director of policy and planning.  The 55-year-old Stein had been involved in Republican politics in Bergen County — he lost a race for mayor of Paramus by 20 points in 1964 — but had never served as a prosecutor or judge.

Stein was confirmed 34-2, with two South Jersey senators, Raymond Zane (D-Woodbury) and Daniel Dalton (D-Clayton), opposing him because they felt South Jersey should be represented on the Supreme Court.

Kean’s most significant hurdle came in 1986 when Wilentz came up for reappointment after seven years as Chief Justice.

Some Republican leaders strongly opposed Wilentz, whom they considered a judicial activist who had thrust the unpopular Mount Laurel decision on them, and pushed Kean — fresh off a 70% landslide re-election — to not reappoint him.  State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Demarest) led the opposition to Wilentz.

Kean ultimately came down on the side of judicial independence, affirming his belief that justices who committed to no major blunders ought to be renominated even if they didn’t share the governor’s ideology at that time.

Wilentz also faced a residency issue: he was living in Manhattan and wanted to make it easier for his wife to receive cancer treatments.  He acknowledged spending enough time in New York to pay income tax there.  Several senators felt New Jersey’s Chief Justice should live in New Jersey.

He claimed his official residence as Deal, rather than Perth Amboy, to stop a fierce critic, State Sen. Peter Garibaldi (R-Monroe), from using senatorial courtesy to block him.

The entire confirmation battle in a 23-17 Democratic Senate was touch-and-go.

Five  Democratic senators – Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch), Paul Contillo (D-Paramus), Catherine Costa (D-Willingboro), Zane, and Dalton – were voting against Wilentz’s confirmation.

That left it up to a Republican governor to sway three Republican senators to vote for a Democratic Chief Justice after Democratic Senate President John F. Russo (D-Toms River) couldn’t produce the votes for confirmation.

Kean lobbied hard, even threatening some Republican senators with a  primary if they didn’t vote for Wilentz.  He also horse-traded, which the onetime Assembly Speaker knew how to do as well as any governor in state history.

Bill Gormley (R-Margate) and Wayne Dumont (R-Phillipsburg), a former senate president, were the only two Republican senators on board for confirmation.

(In the Senate chamber for the vote was former Gov. Richard Hughes, who served as Chief Justice before Wilentz.  Dumont was the 1965 Republican candidate for governor, and Hughes had slaughtered him.)

When the machines opened up for an up-or-down vote on Wilentz, the tally was stuck at 20-19.

Only Lee Laskin (R-Haddonfield), a Republican senator from Haddonfield, had not yet voted.  Laskin had served in the Assembly with Wilentz but was facing extreme pressure from Republicans to stick with the majority of the caucus.

To get Laskin, Kean made a deal with Wilentz: he would agree to move back to New Jersey as soon as his wife’s health improved, and Kean signed legislation to mandate judges to live in the state – a law Wilentz said he would obey.

Laskin voted yes, with the Senate voting 21-19 to give Wilentz tenure as Chief Justice.

Something noteworthy from that battle: when Pollock, a Republican named by Byrne, came up for reappointment, GOP senators approved him for tenure even though his voting record on the Supreme Court was nearly identical to Wilentz.

The Whitman Court

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

With no unanticipated vacancies, Gov. Jim Florio became the second governor 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 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 as a Worker’s Compensation Court Judge, moved up to the Superior Court, and 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 elevate Garibaldi or Stein to Chief Justice, name another Democrat to the post, or break 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 picked 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.

Pollack decided to retire in 1999, at age 67, giving Whitman a 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.

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 for 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 moved two other Republicans, State Sens. Henry McNamara (R-Wyckoff) and Leonard Connors (R-Surf City), into Verniero’s column the night before the vote.

Whitman made another unexpected Supreme Court nomination in June when 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 shortlist for Handler’s successor came down to two Democrats for a Democratic seat: Virginia Long and Stephen Skillman, both longtime appellate court judges and relatively safe candidates for a swift Senate confirmation.

Long served in Byrne’s administration as Commissioner of Banking and Director of Consumer Affairs and was 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 O’Hern reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

O’Hern was the last remaining justice 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 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 and the first Latina Justice, Zulima Farber.  John Wallace, an appellate court judge from South Jersey, was also 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 a Republican governor had nominated the entire top court since Driscoll appointed Brennan Jr. in 1951.

The McGreevey and Corzine Courts

Whitman resigned in February 2001 to join President George W. Bush’s cabinet as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator.  Senate President Donald DiFrancesco succeeded her as governor, but no New Jersey Supreme Court seats opened up during his nearly one-year stint as the state’s chief executive.

James E. McGreevey, elected governor in 2001, had anticipated two – or three, depending on how you view it – Supreme Court appointments during his first term.

Stein and Coleman were set to reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 2003.

But Stein left the top court in 2002, one year early, creating an opportunity for McGreevey to make his first top-court pick.

It was apparent then that after 17 years on the bench – and three on Gov. Tom Kean’s senior staff – Stein was ready to monetize his government service.  In announcing his retirement, Stein told a reporter: “I suspect there is a market for retired justices.”

The front-runner for the seat was Barry Albin, partner at Wilentz, Goldman, and Spitzer.  Old-time Middlesex County Democratic boss David Wilentz, the father of former Chief Justice Robert Wilentz, had founded the firm.  The firm had been colossal benefactors of McGreevey’s political career, and Albin was a close friend.

Donald Scarinci, the head of a powerful North Jersey law firm, was also on a shortlist.

McGreevey had agreed to return to the Hughes Compact, allowing the New Jersey State Bar Association to review judicial candidates.  Whitman had canceled the deal after they rated one of her Supreme Court nominees, Peter Verniero, as unqualified.  (The Bar Association’s opinion of Verniero would change for the better by the time his service on the top court came to an end.)

There was some discussion of naming a Republican to replace Stein, who had been active in Bergen County GOP politics.  That option might have allowed McGreevey to Poritz, also a Republican, and replace her with a Democrat.

Four Republican names were being bandied around at that point: former Attorney General Cary Edwards; and State Sens. Bill Gormley (R-Margate), John Matheussen (R-Washington Township), and Robert Martin (R-Morris Plains).

No political party controlled a majority of the State Senate after the 2001 election, leaving Democrats and Republicans with 20 Senate seats each.   Democrats thought that picking Gormley or Matheussen for the Supreme Court would provide South Jersey with their first top court seat since Haneman retired in 1971 – and, more importantly, give Democrats a shot at taking control of the upper House in a 2002 special election.

As expected, McGreevey chose the 51-year-old Albin.  He also signaled that he intended to renominate Poritz and continue the tradition of allowing sitting justices to obtain tenure after seven years as long as they had committed significant infractions.

They met when they both worked as assistant Middlesex County prosecutors – Albin was ending his tenure there, and McGreevey was starting – and they became friends. At the same time, Albin was a partner at Wilentz, a politically influential law firm that boosted McGreevey’s political career.

Poritz was up for renomination in 2003, and for a while, it was a real possibility that she didn’t have the votes in the Senate to remain chief justice.

She angered some GOP senators for allowing Democrats to switch their U.S. Senate candidate from Bob Torricelli to Frank Lautenberg in October 2002, for an opinion that mandated spending money on urban school districts, and for a decision prohibiting the Boy Scouts from firing a gay scout leader.

McGreevey told Albin to get ready to become chief justice if the Senate rejected Poritz, the former governor told the New Jersey Globe last year.

But Albin pushed McGreevey to help get Poritz over the finish line to protect the political independence of the court.

“You have to do this and you have to promise me right to that you’ll get this done for the sake of the state,” McGreevey recalled Albin as saying to him.  “For the sake of the court, you have to get this done.”

Democrats and Republicans shared control of the Senate that year – each party had 20 seats – and some senators on both sides viewed Poritz as an activist justice.

With McGreevey’s help, the Senate confirmed Poritz by a 24-15 vote, just three more than she needed.  State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) was the only Democrat to vote against Poritz; five Republicans supported her.

When Coleman, the only black on the Supreme Court, retired in 2003, McGreevey chose to nominate another black justice – and return a seat to South Jersey after 32 years.

McGreevey faced some pressure to appoint Farber, an Afro-Cuban who had served in Gov. Jim Florio’s cabinet as state Public Advocate.  She would have been the first Hispanic Justice and black woman on the court.

But Farber had failed to pay for parking tickets, giving McGreevey an excuse to go in a different direction.

His pick was Wallace, a 61-year-old Appellate Court Judge who had spent 18 years on the bench and was a resident of Gloucester County.  Whitman had short-listed Wallace for Justice Daniel O’Hern’s seat four years earlier.

McGreevey’s third opportunity came in 2004 when Verniero chose to step down after serving just five of his seven-year term.  During the gubernatorial campaign that year. McGreevey said he would not reappoint Verniero for a tenured term on the Supreme Court if he won, although he had also been rethinking that statement and might have renominated him.

By the time Verniero announced his retirement in 2004, support for him had increased.  The New Jersey Bar Association issued a strong statement lauding his service on the court, and in 2016 awarded him the highly-coveted Medal of Honor, a distinction that few receive in their lifetime.  McGreevey also praised Verniero’s service and his record.

McGreevey used the Verniero seat to make history and nominated Roberto Rivera-Soto, a 50-year-old casino lawyer and a South Jersey Republican, as the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice.

Ariel Rodriguez, a Cuban-American appellate court judge from Hudson County, had also been on McGreevey’s short-list.

No Supreme Court seats came up during Gov. Richard Codey’s term in office, between McGreevey’s 2004 resignation and Gov. Jon Corzine’s taking office in 2006.

The winner of the 2005 gubernatorial race was going to name a new Chief Justice in their first year as governor when Poritz reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in October 2006

Corzine decided to elevate Associate Justice James Zazzali to serve as Chief Justice for a relatively short tenure.  Zazzali was 69 and would be forced into retirement last than eight months later.

Since Zazzali, a Democrat who served as Attorney General under Gov. Brendan Byrne, replaced Poritz, a registered Republican, Corzine needed to choose a Republican to fill Zazzali’s Associate Justice post.

Corzine’s pick was Helen Hoens, a 52-year-old appellate court judge who had first been named to the bench by Whitman in 1994.

By picking Hoens, Corzine maintained the gender balance of the Supreme Court, which would have resulted in one less woman due to Zazzali replacing Poritz.

The other Republicans Corzine was reportedly considering – were Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance (R-Clinton Township),  former Attorney General John Farmer, Jr., Martin, and Rodriguez.

Zazzali’s short tenure worked well for his eventual successor, Stuart Rabner.

Rabner’s meteoric rise in state politics came after a stint in the U.S. Attorney’s office, some of it under Chris Christie.

Corzine had met Rabner at an event and was impressed enough with him to offer him the position of chief counsel after he was elected governor.

Five months into the Corzine administration, Farber resigned as attorney general after a “do you know who I am?” incident involving Fairview police stopping her boyfriend.  Driven by a state trooper, Farber responded to the scene and sought special treatment.

Rabner replaced Farber as attorney general and held that post for eight months before Corzine nominated him to succeed Zazzali as Chief Justice.

Two Essex County senators, Gill and Ronald Rice (D-Newark), initially used senatorial courtesy to block the 46-year-old Rabner.  Corzine convinced both to sign off, and Rabner was confirmed by a 36-1 vote two weeks after his nomination.  Gill voted against him.

The Christie Court

The ninth governor of New Jersey to serve under the 1947 State Constitution was Republican Chris Christie, who became the first in history to refuse the reappointment of a sitting justice – he did it twice – and the first to see a Supreme Court nomination be rejected by the State Senate – that happened four times.

Christie’s first top court pick came four months into his first year as governor when he declined to reappoint Wallace, the only black on the court.

Instead, he picked Anne Patterson, a 52-year-old Republican lawyer from Morris County.  While Patterson was white, the move would create a court with more women than men – the fifth state in the nation to achieve that.

Christie, already eyeing a larger political arena, viewed the court as too liberal and wanted to change its ideology.

Had Christie renominated Wallace, the seat would have come up again in March 2012 when the Associate Justice reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Senate President Steve Sweeney and other Democrats cried foul, claiming that Christie defied a tradition: governors didn’t dump justices because they disagreed with their decisions.

As a result, Sweeney flexed the power of the Senate and said he would not hold confirmation hearings for the seat until after Wallace had aged out.

At the start of 2011, Rivera-Soto announced that he would not seek reappointment to the bench when his initial seven-year term expired on August 31.

Rivera-Soto, the first Hispanic to serve on the state’s highest court, got in trouble in 2007 when the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct filed an ethics complaint alleging that he abused his post when contacting local officials about an incident involving a family member at a local school.  Rivera-Soto had threatened school officials that he would file a criminal complaint against them if they failed to fact and later called the Haddonfield police chief to push for a criminal complaint against a student at the school.

He also called the judge hearing the complaint and the county prosecutor.

The court later censured Rivera for his actions.

Christie later pulled the nomination of Patterson for Wallace’s seat and renominated her for the one Soto was vacating.  Sweeney then allowed the Senate to consider and confirm Patterson sixteen months after her original appointment.   She took her seat on September 1, 2011.

Another seat came up in March 2012 when Associate Justice Virginia Long turned 70.

With two vacancies, Christie announced the nomination of Brue Harris and Phil Kwon to replace Wallace and Long.

Harris, the Republican mayor of Chatham Borough, was black and would have become the state’s first openly gay justice.  Kwon, who had worked for Christie as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and then as an Assistant Attorney General, would have become the first Asian American on the Supreme Court.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, by a 7-6 vote, rejected Kwon’s nomination following questions over legal and financial issues involving a family business in New York.

Democrats accused Christie of changing the court’s partisan balance, suggesting that Kwon had been a Republican before registering as an independent.  The lack of South Jersey nominees angered Sweeney.

On May 31, the Judiciary panel rejected Harris by a vote of 7-6, saying he lacked courtroom experience.

Christie suggested that the rejections were retaliatory after he pushed pension and benefit reform through the legislature.

In December 2012, Christie announced the nominations of Superior Court Judge David Bauman and Board of Public Utilities President Robert Hanna to replace Wallace and Long.

Bauman, a Republican, was born in Japan, and Christie said his nomination represented diversity on the court.  Hanna, an unaffiliated voter, worked for Christie as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.

Sweeney refused to advance Bauman and Hanna through the Senate confirmation process.

Hoens, a Republican named by Corine, was up for reappointment for a tenured seat in 2013 after completing her seven-year term on the Supreme Court.  She appeared to be campaigning to save her job when some of her votes on the court moved a little to the right, but Christie decided not to renominate her.

Christie claimed she wanted to prevent Hoens from being embarrassed by the Senate rejecting a sitting justice, but he didn’t want her back.

Something that made that even more uncomfortable: Hoens’ husband, former Star-Ledger judiciary reporter Robert Schwaneberg, was on Christie’s staff.

Instead, Christie nominated Superior Court Judge Faustino Fernandez-Vina, 61, the Camden County assignment judge and a Republican, to replace Hoens.

Sweeney accepted Fernandez-Vina, known as Fuzzy, and his nomination sailed through the State Senate.

Christie’s appointment of Fernandez-Vina increased Hispanic representation on the Supreme Court by one to one. It also restored South Jersey two seats.

Fernandez-Vina comes up for reappointment in late 2020, and Gov. Phil Murphy has hinted that he intends to continue the tradition of keeping sitting justices.  He turns 70 in 2022, and Murphy will get a chance to name his replacement if he wins re-election to a second term.

By 2014, Christie appeared to acknowledge that Bauman and Hanna would never reach the Supreme Court.  He nominated Hanna for a Superior Court judgeship instead.

In a deal with Sweeney, Christie nominated Superior Court Judge Lee Solomon, the Camden County assignment judge, to fill Long’s seat on the Supreme Court.

The 59-year-old Solomon came with a solid political resume: he started as a councilman in Haddon Heights, won a race for Camden County freeholder as a Republican, won a State Assembly seat in a 1992 special election convention in the 6th district, and ran for Congress against Rep. Rob Andrews later that year.

In 1995, Solomon lost his Assembly seat by 1,618 votes to Democrat Louis Greenwald (D-Voorhees).

He later served as Camden County prosecutor and a Superior Court Judge before Christie hired him as the Deputy U.S. Attorney in charge of the South Jersey office/

Christie appointed Solomon as commissioner of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities before returning him to the bench in 2011.

The Senate confirmed Solomon and took office 27 months after Long’s retirement.

Wallace’s seat remained vacant for six years until Christie and Sweeney finally struck a deal in 2016.

Christie withdrew Bauman, a Republican, and instead nominated Walter Timpone, a 66-year-old Democrat with ties to both parties.

Timpone had served as a federal prosecutor and commissioner of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

The Murphy Court

If the Senate confirms Gov. Phil Murphy’s nomination of Michael Noriega, he will have reshaped the New Jersey Supreme Court by naming a majority of its justices, four of seven.

With Timpone set to reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 2020, Murphy nominated Fabiana Pierre-Louis, 39, a former federal prosecutor – like Solomon, she headed the U.S. Attorney’s South Jersey office – to replace him. The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Pierre-Louis became the first black woman to serve on the state’s highest court.

The other finalist for the seat was Superior Court Judge Greta Gooden Brown.   Less than three months later, she was confirmed in a 39-0 vote.

In March 2021, LaVecchia announced that she would retire before her 70th birthday.  Murphy’s choice to succeed her was Rachel Wainer Apter, the 40-year-old director of the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights.  Wainer Apter was a former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and had worked as a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

But Wainer Apter’s nomination stalled after State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) refused to sign off on her.  Under the unwritten rules of senatorial courtesy, no nominee from Bergen County could be considered unless home county senators agreed.

Fernandez-Vina, a Republican, reached the mandatory retirement age in February 2022.  Murphy resisted filling that seat until Wainer Apter was confirmed.   Two Latina Republicans, Superior Court Judges Maritza Berdote Byrne and Lisa Miralles-Walsh, were vetted for the seat.

It wasn’t until September 2022 that Murphy and Schepisi came to an agreement: the governor would agree to maintain the partisan balance of the court by picking Douglas Fasciale, a Republican Superior Court judge to fill the seat – Fasciale was recommended by Senate President Nicholas Scutari – and Schepisi would release the Wainer Apter nomination.

The Senate confirmed Wainer Apter on a mostly party-line 23-14 vote, with State Sen. Bob Singer (R-Lakewood) breaking with his caucus to support her.   Fasciale was confirmed unanimously.

Noriega was named to replace Albin, who turned 70 in July 2022.

Murphy had considered and interviewed several candidates for the top court, including John E. Keefe, Jr., a former president of the New Jersey State Bar Association and Appellate Court Judge Hany Mawla, but appeared determined to ensure Hispanic representation, the New Jersey Globe confirmed.

The New Jersey Globe also confirmed that Christine Soto, the general counsel at Essex County College, and Appellate Court Judge Lisa Perez Friscia were interviewed by Murphy and that former New Jersey Hispanic Bar Association President Julia López, former First Assistant Attorney General Ricardo Solano, U.S. Magistrate Judge Edward Kiel, and Solangel Maldonado, a Seton Hall law professor who clerked for two federal judges, were finalists for the post.  Maldonado removed her name from consideration.

Sources had told the New Jersey Globe that U.S. Magistrates Judges André M. Espinosa and Jose R. Almonte also received consideration, along with Superior Court Judges Veronica Allende and Karina Fuentes.

Spread the news: