On Friday, NJ Gov. Phil Murphy will announce his first pick for the state’s Supreme Court since taking office, and it will be a historic one.
Murphy will nominate Fabiana Pierre-Louis, a partner at Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads, to be the next associate justice of the state’s highest court. If the state Senate confirms the nomination, Pierre-Louis will be the first Black woman to ever sit on the court.
Pierre-Louis, 39, has not only worked in private practice, but has also worked as a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice for years.
“It’s hard to put into words the honor that it is to be nominated to the highest court in the state of New Jersey,” Pierre-Louis told ESSENCE. “My goal, particularly as a prosecutor, was always to pursue justice and fairness in the law…It’s just a remarkable opportunity to continue in the very proud tradition of this state’s Supreme Court.”
The daughter of immigrants from Haiti, and a first-generation American, Pierre-Louis believes she will bring a unique perspective to the court if confirmed.
“I am a Black woman. I am the child of immigrants from Haiti. I am someone who is a first generation American citizen here in this country, [the] first person in my family to attend law school, to become a lawyer, someone who’s also lived in a variety of inner cities throughout my life, beginning with my early childhood in Brooklyn, then followed by the remainder of my childhood in Irvington, New Jersey,” she said. “All those experiences bring a unique perspective to the Court that currently is not there.”
To the governor, the nomination was a no-brainer, given his own belief that a judiciary should reflect the diversity in the state.
“A core tenet of my Administration is a commitment to an independent, fair-minded judiciary that reflects the immense diversity of our great state,” Murphy told ESSENCE. “As a first-generation American, Fabiana brings both a sharp legal acumen and the perspective of her own past that will greatly benefit the proceedings of our state’s highest court.”
“New Jersey is a very diverse state,” Pierre-Louis echoing the governor’s statements. “It is extremely important for the judiciary and other government bodies to be a reflection of the community that they serve. So, having people of diverse backgrounds and diverse perspectives sitting on the highest court in these states certainly inspires confidence that the court will rule and have these diverse perspectives in ruling on extremely important cases.”
Pierre-Louis’ own work speaks volumes for her. She graduated from Rutgers Law School with High Honors before going on to clerk for Justice John Wallace Jr. during the 2006-2007 Supreme Court term. From there she went to Montgomery McCracken for about three years, before moving to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey in 2010. In 2012, she moved to the Trenton office, and four years later she would be the first woman of color to be Attorney-in-Charge. In that role, she supervised all aspects of criminal matters handled by the office, while also investigating and prosecuting her own caseload, inclusive of matters from child exploitation offenses, to national security matters, to public corruption matters and more.
While in Trenton, Pierre-Louis helped to create the Trenton Reentry Court, which provides assistance to returning citizens to help reacclimating to society.
In 2018, she became the first woman of color to serve as Attorney-in-Charge of U.S. Attorney’s Office in Camden, later returning to private practice in 2019.
“My experience speaks volumes with regard to my ability to take on this position and to successfully execute the duties of an associate justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey. I’ve practiced in private practice at a law firm doing civil work. I’ve also been a federal prosecutor,” Pierre-Louis said. “I’ve supervised a wide variety of cases and gained the respect of not only the judiciary but of my colleagues and even defense attorneys that I have worked on cases with. And I think my integrity, my open-mindedness, and my ability to communicate well with others is something that has helped me succeed throughout my career.”
If confirmed, Pierre-Louis will be the first Black judge to sit on the court since 2010, when then-Gov. Chris Christie stirred controversy and outrage in the state after failing to renominate then-Justice John Wallace Jr. to a tenured term.
In the New Jersey State Supreme Court, a justice is initially confirmed for seven years. After those seven years, once a justice has served with good behavior and made sound decisions (regardless of who may or may not agree with said decisions), they are typically renominated and reconfirmed for a tenured term, which automatically expires once the justice turns 70, regardless of if that justice was initially chosen by a governor of a different party.
Wallace has been the only justice that has been denied tenure since the state Constitution was adopted in 1947. At the time, he was the court’s only Black justice (and only the second Black person to ever sit on the court), and his tenured term would have automatically expired when he had reached 70 in less than two years.
The fallout was swift, and Christie’s Judiciary Advisory Panel all resigned en masse to protest the then-governor’s decision to replace Wallace. Democrats balked, with the Democrat-led senate routinely blocking Christie’s nominees, leaving the final seat of the state’s highest court unfilled for six years until Justice Walter Timpone was confirmed and sworn in 2016.
It is Timpone’s seat that Pierre-Louis will fill if confirmed, as the justice will reach the mandatory age of retirement in November.
Pierre-Louis’ nomination comes at a time when the nation is in turmoil and many have flooded to the streets demanding justice for Black Lives and accountability from the police, but Murphy stressed that his selection did not come as a result of the current national discourse.
“In addition to her esteemed legal career, Fabiana’s humility, empathy, and character are all traits that make her well-suited to become the first Black woman and the next Associate Justice to serve on New Jersey’s Supreme Court,” Murphy said in a statement.
“I have not chosen to nominate Fabiana because of the current national discussion around race. However, given the challenges which are being brought to the forefront of our society, and the questions which will undoubtedly rise to reach our Supreme Court – core issues of socioeconomic equality and equity – there is no better meeting of an individual and the times,” he added.
Pierre-Louis told ESSENCE that she seeks to be a “fair, open-minded” justice, if nominated.
“I certainly believe that I would…have the ability to listen to all arguments from all sides and make a determination after having done so and looked at the facts and the law before me to make determinations about whether I believe there was an error on the lower court below or not,” she said.
“I think the New Jersey Supreme Court is a perfect model of a very strong court in this country that has historically been very independent,” she added. “I think the role of a Supreme Court justice is to review the cases and ensure that fairness and justice results no matter what the political atmosphere is at the time.”