In 1947, New Jersey created the foundation for its nationally acclaimed court system by drafting a completely new constitution during a dramatic summer convention at Rutgers University. In an instant, what had been one of the most convoluted and user-unfriendly legal networks in the country was transformed into a model of reform and accessibility.
Indeed, until that moment, the whole feel of state government seemed out of sync by a century. That’s because Trenton was still functioning under a constitution enacted in 1844 with laws and practices wedded to English customs and colonial sensibilities. But through the elegant orchestration of freshman Governor Alfred Driscoll and a relatively bipartisan cast of legislators and officials, New Jersey was catapulted into a postwar governance more in keeping with its urban character and metropolitan region identity.
Reforms that had been bottled up for years unspooled at dizzying speed. Driscoll’s two predecessors, Charles Edison (the inventor’s son) and Walter Edge, had been thwarted in their efforts to revise the constitution. And good government progressives led by Arthur T. Vanderbilt had been stymied trying to do so for decades by bosses like Frank Hague who preened and prospered in the status quo.
But Driscoll delivered the goods on his first attempt and voters gave their overwhelming approval in a November referendum. Through a combination of chutzpah, hardball, and exquisitely-timed compromise, he had infused the new constitution with clear separation of powers, the strongest chief executive in the nation, and the blueprint for an independent, unified and politically neutral judiciary.
The governor, a disciple of Harvard Law School Dean Roscoe Pound, immediately fended off the predations of lawyers and lawmakers whose sacred cows had been slaughtered in the process. And he named Vanderbilt as first chief justice of the new state Supreme Court. The patrician attorney-crusader responded quickly with top-to-bottom reforms he had been contemplating for years, prompting howls from the old guard that could be heard from Trenton to Teaneck.
The compelling back story to these events and its two riveting, counterpoint players, Vanderbilt and Hague, is bracingly delivered by Nelson Johnson in “Battleground New Jersey.” Johnson, author of “Boardwalk Empire” and a keen student of the mosaic of Garden State politics, disproves the theory that a book about the judiciary can’t be crackling good.
For decades, Vanderbilt, respectfully known as New Jersey’s Warrior Lawyer, tried without success to neutralize Hague, the Celtic Chieftain of Hudson County. In Driscoll, he finally found the perfect paladin to achieve this goal. But for Vanderbilt, it was more than just defeating a foe of reform government. It was about personal comeuppance against a nemesis who had morphed into an obsession. Normally circumspect, he had developed such a blind spot where Hague was concerned that Vanderbilt could only refer to Hague as the Hitler of Hudson County.
And it was to Vanderbilt’s chagrin and fury that at least two gubernatorial and several senatorial campaigns had been stolen over the years by the Hague-manipulated “late” Hudson County results. The boss had even turned his Democratic legions into “Republicans for a day” to thwart GOP candidates too liberal for his liking. Voter rolls were padded with names of the dead and out-of-staters. Former Gov. Brendan Byrne famously commented that he would like to be buried in Hudson County so he could keep on voting.
For many in the New York legal community, Vanderbilt’s name still resonates through his decades-long association with New York University School of Law as a professor and ultimately as its dean. The son of a railroad telegrapher and a double major undergraduate of Wesleyan College and then Columbia Law, class of 1913, his exertions helped modernize NYU’s curriculum, attract better faculty, and save the school from financial ruin.
Vanderbilt stoically made the trans-Hudson commute for years from his non-partnered, high-profile Newark practice (17 associates and an equal number of clerks at full toil) with its roster of corporate giants weighted toward national insurance carriers, some with headquarters in New York, and public clients as diverse as socialist Norman Thomas and ACLU founder Roger Baldwin.
But the name on the door of Newark’s National and Essex Building always remained Arthur T. Vanderbilt: Counsellor at Law. In 1937, he was elected president of the American Bar Association, adding national cachet to his already bulging portfolio. He would also serve on the U.S. attorney general’s committee for government-wide administrative reforms and on a panel tasked with overhauling the system of postwar military justice.
Although mentioned several times for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, Vanderbilt never campaigned for one and instead mentored William J. Brennan Jr., who served under him as an associate justice on New Jersey’s newly minted top court before moving onto a distinguished tenure on the nation’s highest bench.
During these years, Vanderbilt, though stretched to the limits by his multiplicity of activities, still managed to piece together a Clean Government network of progressive Republicans to try and blunt the effects of Hague’s Democratic colossus. His followers were mainline Protestants who tended to be big businessmen, Chamber types, or remnant rural yeomanry.
Hague’s people were Catholic, urban and underclass. As such, they were more than willing to march in lockstep on the precinct, ward, city and state levels. Hague was the unquestioned leader of an us-against-them army and often co-opted the church for deus ex machina moments such as fighting a revision of the New Jersey constitution by raising fears ranging from loss of tax exemptions to bans on bingo games.
Frank (“I am the law”) Hague was, like Vanderbilt, also known on the other side of the Hudson River, but for far less flattering reasons. The origin of his fearsome nickname, Johnson explains, has been much bandied about and its specific context stretched. But it succinctly summed up his essence. So entrenched was he as mayor of Jersey City, that each month, every municipal employee was required to kick back 3 percent of their paychecks to the Hague organization.
The rite was known quaintly as “rice pudding day.”
With its railroad yards, piers, and refineries, Jersey City impacted directly on the legal and financial centers of New York. It was sometimes referred to as its sixth borough. Hague maintained an apartment in the city to complement his Florida, Jersey Shore and Hudson County residences. For more than three decades he was the absolute potentate of all he surveyed.
The boss routinely turned back efforts to reform the judiciary and restructure the powers of the governor (weak) and legislature (strong). Hague loved to name judges. And lawyers appreciated the clunkiness of the system. It kept their fees and billings churning while often putting the appropriate jurisdiction beyond the reach of the average citizen.
On the eve of the 1947 constitutional convention, New Jersey still operated with a remarkable array of courts and jurisdictions. They included: The Court of Errors and Appeals (at the top of the judicial chain, with lay members including Hague’s son), the Prerogative Court, the Court of Common Pleas, the Circuit Court, the Orphans Court, the Surrogate’s Court, the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the Court of Quarter Sessions, the Court of Special Sessions, the Civil District Court, the Criminal Judicial District Court, the Small Cause Court, the Police Recorder Court, the County Traffic Court, and Justices of the Peace.
These all vanished in the constitutional rescript. By 1949, a degree of accessibility and consistency had been drilled into the system through Vanderbilt’s decisive actions, often given cover by Driscoll. Chancery was gone. Now the county and superior courts were administered by assignment judges chosen by the new chief justice in a unified system that abolished the separation of law and equity. The chief also promulgated all administrative edicts and made judicial assignments. Judges were forbidden to hold outside jobs; pretrial discovery and conference rules were stiffened, and municipal magistrates were required to be lawyers, wear robes and belong to the bar.
Vanderbilt presciently understood that the greatest potential for mischief, influence peddling, case referral and outright graft took place at the local level, so he went to great lengths to insure the rectitude of the municipal vicinages. The man who loved lawyering (his critics would say grandstanding) presided as chief justice until his death in 1957, living to see the fruits of his efforts take hold.
Frank Hague, on the other hand, had long been deposed as Hudson County chief and Jersey City mayor by the time of his death in 1956. He passed his days sulking at his former fiefdom from an apartment in New York, knowing there wasn’t a traffic ticket he could fix, much less a judgeship.
Nelson Johnson gauges both men perfectly, finding an uncomfortable tension and symmetry in their adversarial relationship and what it meant in its broadest implications to New Jersey and, indeed, the nation. The law needed a Vanderbilt, just as the politics of the times apparently needed a Hague.