Gov. Chris Christie sent shock waves across the New Jersey legal community last Monday by announcing he would not reappoint Justice Helen Hoens to the state Supreme Court, despite acknowledging her qualifications.
Christie said at a press conference that he was taking the action because Democrats, who hold the Senate majority, have indicated they will withhold advice and consent on her renomination.
He said he wished to spare her from what he called an act of “political vengeance” that would blemish her “outstanding judicial career.”
Instead, Christie nominated Camden County Assignment Judge Faustino Fernandez-Vina for Hoens’ seat, which will become vacant when her seven-year term expires on Oct. 26.
Fernandez-Vina, like Hoens, is a Republican, and it is unclear how Senate Democrats will treat his nomination.
Late last month, Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, suggested that the Senate refuse to confirm Hoens for tenure as “payback” for Christie’s refusal to reappoint Justice John Wallace Jr. in 2010.
Christie said he broke the news to Hoens earlier on Monday. “I told her that I was sorry that because of the conduct of people like Ray Lesniak and others, that she was not going to be able to serve if she so chose until her retirement age at 70,” he said.
Lesniak said Monday that he would have voted against Hoens’ nomination but that he had “no idea” how it ultimately would have fared before the full committee. “I would not have supported it, but I’m only one member of the committee and I was not speaking for anyone else,” he said. “I do believe it would have been a battle.”
Lesniak said it is too early to comment on Fernandez-Vina.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, declined to comment on Christie’s decision regarding Hoens, other than to say it was “his prerogative.”
As for Fernandez-Vina’s nomination, “We will do our due diligence, and we will move forward in a manner we deem appropriate,” he said.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
New Jersey State Bar Association President Ralph Lamparello reacted angrily to the refusal to reappoint Hoens.
“For nearly 20 years, she has served the people of New Jersey with distinction,” said Lamparello, of Chasan Leyner & Lamparello in Secaucus. “She does not deserve to be treated as a political pawn in the battle between the governor and the Legislature over our courts.
“Governor Christie has now twice broken with 60 years of tradition and ignored the clear intention of the framers of our 1947 Constitution to create a strong and independent judiciary,” he said. “The rhetoric here smacks of one-upsmanship — and will continue the slippery slope we began traveling when the governor made the then unprecedented move of not renominating Justice Wallace for tenure.”
Wallace’s seat has remained empty despite Christie’s attempts to fill it and a second vacancy caused by the retirement of Justice Virginia Long. Two of his nominees, Greenberg Traurig’s Bruce Harris and First Assistant Attorney General Phillip Kwon, were rejected as unqualified last year by the Senate in party-line votes. Two subsequent nominees, Superior Court Judge David Bauman and Board of Public Utilities President Robert Hanna, have had their Senate confirmation hearings withheld indefinitely.
Senior Appellate Division judges have been assigned temporarily to fill those two seats. Hoens’ departure would create a third vacancy if the Senate refuses to act on Fernandez-Vena’s nomination or if he is found to be unqualified.
Christie challenged the Senate Judiciary Committee to find a reason to reject Fernandez-Vina and described him as “smart, with common sense, who’s worked hard, been confirmed twice by the Senate himself and is leading one of the most complicated vicinages to run in this state.”
Born in Santiago, Cuba, Fernandez-Vina, 61, is a graduate of Widener University and Rutgers University Law School-Camden. Admitted to practice in 1981, he worked at the law office of John Spence in Haddonfield until 1992 and was with Mount Laurel’s Capehart & Scatchard from 1993 until 1998, when he joined Kelley, Wardell & Craig in Haddonfield (now CraigAnninBaxter Law). He became a partner at the firm, where he practiced until his appointment to the bench in 2004.
He has served in Camden County since then in the Family and Civil parts. He was reappointed with tenure in 2011 and became assignment judge on Feb. 1, 2012.
In a 2012 Law Journal survey of practitioners about state Superior Court judges, Fernandez-Vina was ranked 13th out of 24 judges in Camden County, with an overall score of 8.44 on a scale of 10. The average score for the county was 8.33.
Hoens, in a statement released Monday, expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to serve in the New Jersey judiciary for almost 20 years, as a trial and appellate judge and as a Supreme Court justice, and her disappointment at not being able to continue.
“I have tried, in each of those roles, to approach each and every matter with an open and unbiased mind, to treat each litigant before the court with dignity and respect, to temper each decision with patience and compassion, and to apply the law as I understood it both faithfully and fairly,” she said.