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Stanley C. Van Ness. (Photo: Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University).

Trailblazer: Stanley Van Ness

First Black Chief Counsel to the Governor of New Jersey

By David Wildstein, January 16 2023 12:18 am

Stanley C. Van Ness (1933-2007) became the first Black chief counsel to the Governor of New Jersey when he was named to the post by Gov. Richard J. Hughes in 1967, at age 34.  He was sworn in just at the start of The Newark riots.

Van Ness  became an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey in 1963 and an assistant counsel to the Governor in 1965.

In 1969, Hughes named Van News to head the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender.

Gov. Brendan Byrne created the New Jersey Department of the Public Advocate in 1974 and named Van Ness to lead it as a member of his cabinet.   He served in the cabinet for the entire eight years of the Byrne administration.

As Public Advocate, Van Ness representing the interests of ratepayers before the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, sued the New Jersey Department of Human Services over miserable conditions in state mental health facilities, and the Boy Scouts of America after they denied four Toms River scouts with muscular dystrophy the ability to become Eagle Scouts because they could not earn swimming-related merit badges.

In 1980, he engaged in a public fight with State Sen. John Dorsey (R-Boonton) over Van Ness’ appointment of Michael Murphy, Hughes’ son, as a public defender in Morris County.  Murphy later became the Morris County Prosecutor and sough the Democratic nomination for governor in 1997.

Before law school, Van Ness served in the U.S. Air Force.

He was the recipient of a heart transplant in 1998.

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