The New Jersey Senate on Monday unanimously approved the appointment of Faustino Fernandez-Vina to the state Supreme Court.
Fernandez-Vina, 61, a Republican from southern New Jersey, was sworn in on Tuesday and began hearing oral arguments that day.
He filled the seat vacated Oct. 26 by Justice Helen Hoens, also of the GOP, thereby keeping the court’s political balance.
A native of Cuba who immigrated to the U.S. as a child, Fernandez-Vina is the second Hispanic justice to sit on the state’s high court.
He has been a Superior Court judge since 2004, most recently serving as Camden County’s assignment judge for the past year-and-a-half. He was the county’s presiding Civil Part judge from February 2007 until February 2012.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner announced Tuesday that Lee Solomon, the Camden vicinage’s presiding Criminal Part judge since April, is taking over as assignment judge.
Monday’s 38-0 confirmation vote came after a brief exchange between Sens. Raymond Lesniak and Kevin O’Toole over Fernandez-Vina’s testimony at his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Oct. 17.
Fernandez-Vina repeatedly refused to comment on court rulings, saying he believed he was governed by Canon 2A of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which says judges must act in a way that promotes public confidence in the judiciary.
Lesniak, D-Union, said Monday that Fernandez-Vina hid behind a judicial ethics rule that doesn’t exist: “that you can’t discuss the jurisprudence of any case that has ever been decided.” Among the cases Fernandez-Vina wouldn’t give his opinion about were Brown v. Board of Education and Griswold v. Connecticut, Lesniak pointed out.
Lesniak said that although Fernandez-Vina appears to be a good trial judge, there is no history of opinions, law review articles or journals from which to ascertain his approach to the law.
Nevertheless, he said he would support Fernandez-Vina because of the strong views he expressed at the hearing about the value of stare decisis. Thus, he would likely not vote to overturn Lewis v. Harris—the ruling that paved the way for legalization of same-sex marriage in New Jersey—Lesniak observed.
O’Toole, R-Bergen/Essex/Passaic, noted that prior nominees had refused to answer questions about cases that could come before the court and that it would be unfair to “put an asterisk” next to Fernandez-Vina by suggesting he could have been disqualified because he didn’t answer.
Lesniak said that no asterisk was intended, but that to set the record clear, the committee didn’t ask Fernandez-Vina about Mount Laurel, Abbott v. Burke or Lewis v. Harris. He was asked about U.S. Supreme Court precedents.
Other GOP senators spoke in favor of Fernandez-Vina, who the committee had voted 13-0 to recommend for appointment.
Fernandez-Vina, a resident of Barrington Borough, graduated from Widener University and received his law degree in 1981 from Rutgers Law School-Camden.
He clerked for Camden County Superior Court Judge E. Stevenson Fluharty before going to work as an associate in John Spence Jr.’s office in Haddonfield, where he spent 10 years, primarily in personal injury defense.
He continued in defense work as a partner at two prominent firms, first at Capehart & Scatchard in Mount Laurel, where he litigated products liability, dram shop, insurance coverage, toxic torts and personal injury cases from 1993 to 1998. Then he moved to Kelley Wardell & Craig in Haddonfield—now CraigAnninBaxter Law—where he also practiced legal malpractice defense.
He was at the firm for six years before Gov. James McGreevey named him to the Superior Court in 2004.
As a judge, Fernandez-Vina has served on the Supreme Court committees on Character, Jury Selection in Civil and Criminal Trials, and Judicial Salaries and Pensions. He was appointed in June to co-chair a Supreme Court advisory committee looking for ways to speed up civil cases. He is also a member of the Supreme Court Ad Hoc Committee on the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Judicial Council Labor Relations and Personnel Committee.
There are now five justices on the high court: Democrats Stuart Rabner and Barry Albin; Republicans Anne Patterson and Fernandez-Vina; and Jaynee LaVecchia, a GOP-leaning Independent.
Gov. Chris Christie’s nominees for the two remaining vacancies, David Bauman and Robert Hanna, remain in limbo as Senate President Stephen Sweeney has declined to set dates for confirmation hearings. ■