In Brief

N.J. Supreme Court among country’s most diverse. That’s not saying much

By: - May 24, 2022 6:56 am

Counting only confirmed justices, people of color occupy fewer seats on New Jersey’s high court than they do in 24 other states. (Getty Images)

Even with multiple seats vacant, New Jersey’s Supreme Court is among the most diverse in the nation, but its diversity still lags behind that of its citizenry, according to a new report.

A study released Friday by the Brennan Center for Justice found nine states have more diverse supreme courts than New Jersey.

That figure comes with a caveat. It counts Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis — who in 2020 became the court’s first Black woman justice — and Judge Jose Fuentes, though Fuentes is a temporary addition to the court.

The study finds there are no Black justices in 28 states, no Latino justices in 39, and no Asian American justices in 43. Nationwide, just 18 percent of state supreme court seats comprise people of color. There are zero people of color on state supreme courts in 20 states.

In New Jersey, the normally seven-person court has just five confirmed justices. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has temporarily elevated Fuentes to fill the seat left vacant by Justice Jaynee LaVecchia’s retirement until the state Senate confirms a more permanent replacement. Another seat, most recently occupied by now-retired Justice Faustino Fernandez Vina, remains vacant because Rabner said a second temporary appointment would imperil the court’s tradition of partisan balance.

Rachel Wainer Apter, director of New Jersey’s civil rights division, is awaiting confirmation to the court, but her nomination has been stalled for more than a year by the invocation of senatorial courtesy, an unwritten rule that allows senators to unilaterally block nominees from their home county or legislative district. Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has not nominated a person to fill the other vacant seat, saying they are waiting for Wainer Apter’s nomination to be heard by the Senate first.

Counting only confirmed justices, people of color occupy fewer seats on New Jersey’s high court than they do in 24 other states. That puts it among states like Maine, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, and Louisiana.

Women are also underrepresented on New Jersey’s high court. Only two women — Pierre Louis and Justice Anne Patterson — hold seats on New Jersey’s Supreme Court. Women occupy more supreme court seats in 33 other states, including 16 where they held a majority.

New Jersey’s Supreme Court also bears another distinction: It’s the only state supreme court in the country to have a seat vacant and a temporarily elevated judge on its bench, according to the Brennan Center.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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