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Perhaps no other justice has arrived at the New Jersey Supreme Court under such controversy. From the moment his nomination was announced in 1999, Peter Verniero was described by critics as lacking the seasoning for the job – in years at the bar and in breadth of work. His tenure on the bench has belied those predictions, though. Verniero’s 124 opinions — 72 majority, 25 dissenting and 27 concurring rulings – exceed those of his current colleagues. And he has written on topics ranging from discrimination to search and seizure and from public debt to how a criminal defendant should be allowed to appear in court. Indeed, after he announced that he would resign as of Aug. 31, State Bar President Karol Corbin Walker issued a statement praising his service. “His scholarship is now manifest,” said Corbin Walker, who was chairwoman of the State Bar’s Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee that found him unqualified for the job after his nomination. “His opinions reflect a strong independence of thought,” says Alan Zegas, a defense attorney who heads a firm in Chatham. Verniero’s work resists pigeon-holing; though the former state attorney general has favored the state more than the defense, he has not turned out to be a sure vote for the prosecution and he has sided with plaintiffs in civil cases. In short, his decisions tend to be fact-specific. In an interview last Monday, the 45-year-old Verniero said his goal was to be known as a jurist who aimed to make his rulings as simple as possible. “I tried to keep my opinions relatively short and easy for lay people to understand,” he says. “I also wanted to make sure that the views of the Legislature were clearly expressed.” Regardless of how clear and precise an opinion may be, Verniero knows that the Court is an easy target for criticism, especially when it acts against the grain of legislative or public support. “But I wish that commentators would take the time and quietly read the opinion. They may not agree with the result, but I would like to think that they could appreciate the reasoning,” he says. And Verniero rejects the notion that the Court is an activist bench. “Justice Alan Handler once told me that the judiciary is actually the most passive of the three branches of government. We only decide what’s been brought before us. The Court never decides anything on its own. Whenever I hear the ‘activist’ label, I think of that.” The Court has no choice, on occasion, except to strike down a statute that may have popular support but is constitutionally flawed, he says. “It is very difficult to write a statute that is completely free of ambiguity,” Verniero explains. “It may be an impossible task.” Leaving His Mark Surveying the opinions he has written, Verniero says the two most notable because of their widespread impact are Joye v. Hunterdon Central Board of Education, 176 N.J. 568 (2003), and State v. Golotta, 178 N.J. 205 (2003). In Joye, Verniero wrote the 4-3 majority opinion upholding the Hunterdon Central High School policy of conducting random drug tests on students who participated in extracurricular activities or who applied to park on campus. In Golotta, Verniero wrote the unanimous opinion that said that an anonymous 9-1-1 call from a cell phone about an erratic driver provided the police with enough authority to stop a driver under the state and federal constitutions. The opinion recently was cited by the Hawaii State Supreme Court in another drunken driving case, Hawaii v. Prendergast, 83 P.3d. 714 (2004). In another case involving juveniles, In the Interest of J.D.H., 171 N.J. 475 (2002), Verniero wrote that the Wiretap Act, which requires police to adhere to certain judicially approved procedures in intercepting private conversations, does not apply to juveniles. In other criminal cases, though, Verniero has sided with the defense. In State v. Rodriguez, 172 N.J. 100 (2002), Verniero, writing for a unanimous Court, said police must meet heightened standards when detaining a subject for questioning, especially if they make it clear that the suspect is not free to leave. And, in State v. Maisonet, 166 N.J. 9 (2001), Verniero, again writing for a unanimous Court, said a criminal defendant, who appeared before the jury dirty and disheveled, must be granted a new trial because his appearance may have tainted the jury. The Court said officials should take steps to ensure that incarcerated defendants are given the opportunity appear before a jury clean and in fresh clothes. In a ruling that drew the ire of the Legislature, Verniero, writing for a 4-3 majority in State v. Sisler, 177 N.J. 199 (2003), said a person who prints child pornography from a Web site for his personal use is not engaged in illegal “reproduction” of prohibited material under the state’s child endangerment statute. And in a closely watched civil case, Lockley v. Department of Corrections, 177 N.J. 413 (2003), Verniero wrote a 4-3 majority opinion that allowed a male sexual-discrimination plaintiff to seek punitive damages against the state Department of Corrections. Verniero says he enjoys writing dissents because even those can have an impact. “Sometimes it can shape the majority,” he says, “and it has happened before. Or the reasoning can get folded into the majority. A well-reasoned dissent can help shape future opinions. It is happened enough to say that it’s gratifying.” He would not say which of his dissents eventually turned into majority opinions, citing the confidential nature of the Court’s workings. Verniero’s dissents include Planned Parenthood of Central New Jersey v. Farmer, 165 N.J. 609 (2000). There, Verniero disagreed with the majority and said that the Parental Notification for Abortion Act, which required underage girls to notify their parents 24 hours before obtaining an abortion, did not unduly restrict their right to an abortion. He based his dissent in large part on a provision in the law allowing a judge to waive the notification requirement if the girl could show she was mature enough or was afraid to tell her parents. Last year, in Lonegan v. State of New Jersey, 176 N.J. 2, Verniero, joined by Justices Virginia Long and James Zazzali, argued that the Debt Limitation Clause of the state Constitution applies to any legislative debt that binds the state, not just that approved by voters in a general election. And, in McNeil v. Legislative Apportionment Commission, 177 N.J. 364, Verniero, joined by Justice Barry Albin, would have rejected a reapportionment plan favored by state Democrats, and upheld by the Apportionment Commission, which divided Newark and Jersey City into three districts. The state Constitution does not allow municipalities to be split into more than two districts, but the majority said such a ruling in favor of state Republicans may have run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act. Whitman Ties The Court was not an unfamiliar place to Verniero, who had been a clerk for Justice Robert Clifford during the 1984-1985 term, after he graduated with honors from Duke University School of Law. He then became an associate at Morristown’s Pitney, Hardin, Kipp & Szuch from 1985 to 1987, and a partner at Warren’s Herold & Haines in Warren until 1993. He served as Christine Todd Whitman’s chief campaign lawyer, and when she was elected governor, he was named her chief counsel, then chief of staff and then attorney general. When he was nominated to the bench in 1999, the New Jersey State Bar Association said his relative lack of experience – he had been a practicing lawyer for barely 10 years, the minimum for a trial judge – made him unqualified for the post. Verniero’s opponents used his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to argue that he was given the job because he had been loyal to Whitman, not because of his legal acumen. Verniero’s nomination was released from the committee only after much arm-twisting by its chairman, Sen. William Gormley, R-Atlantic. Then, in 2001 the committee voted to ask the state Assembly to file articles of impeachment against Verniero for allegedly lying to the committee during his confirmation hearing about the extent of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into racial profiling by the state police. But Assembly Speaker Jack Collins, R-Salem, refused to consider the request and Verniero rebuffed calls to resign. But last September, Verniero announced he would leave the bench before the 2004-2005 term begins in September. He acknowledged it would be difficult for him to overcome the political hurdles of reappointment in 2006. Gov. James McGreevey, while campaigning, said he would not nominate Verniero for tenure if McGreevey were re-elected. Ironically, McGreevey won’t be around to complete his first term, having announced on Aug. 12 that he is gay, had an adulterous relationship with a man and would leave office on Nov. 15. Lawyers who have appeared before the Court in recent years say Verniero has proved his critics wrong. “He was a perfectly decent justice,” says Frank Askin of the Constitutional Law Center at Rutgers Law School-Newark. “I think he might be a little more conservative than the center of the Court but certainly, on balance, he was active, bright and he argued persuasively. I can’t fault his performance, even though I opposed his nomination.” Says Justin Walder, of Roseland’s Walder, Hayden & Brogan, “He clearly exceeded everyone’s expectations when he was nominated by Gov. Whitman.” He adds, “For a person with fairly little experience in the law, he has written thoughtful and well-reasoned opinions.” A third lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg, says Verniero has not been on the bench long enough to have a legacy. “I think he was still a work in progress,” adds Lustberg, of Newark’s Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione. But, he continues, Verniero showed that he was able to act independently. “He was predictably conservative on most criminal justice issues, but he has been less ideological than many of us feared.” Future Plans Exclude Politics Verniero says he is close to completing an agreement with a prospective employer, but will not divulge further details until an announcement next month. “I’m very close to finding my place, but I’m not at liberty to discuss it beyond that,” he says. He also is reluctant to discuss what type of law he will practice. “We’re still discussing . . . any area of expertise,” he says. “Part of me likes being a generalist, but given the nature of the profession you have to be a generalist to some extent.” One thing that Verniero insists he will not do is re-enter the political arena. “That part of my life is over,” he says. “I have no aspirations to political life, not even behind the scenes.” And apparently he does not relish the thought of being a rainmaker. “Business development is a reality in today’s legal world,” he says, “but not all lawyers have to shoulder the same burden.” Verniero declines to discuss his professional life before he joined the bench. He will not speak about his time under Whitman; the racial profiling investigation, which led the federal government to appoint an overseer for the state police; or the call by the Senate Judiciary Committee for his impeachment or resignation. He cites a tradition by other justices of not discussing their previous career experiences and his personal desire to not rehash what he did while working for Whitman. When he announced his resignation, he said the primary reason was money. Verniero, who has two daughters, said he did not believe he could afford to properly raise his family and send his children to college on his $158,500-a-year salary. “I have to keep in mind that I was made a justice at a young age with a capped salary, unlike most professionals who do not have a capped salary,” he says. Most judges have created a little nest egg before going on the bench, Verniero says. He had not. “My dad told me that I did the second half of my life first,” he says.

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