Editor’s Note: The following piece is written by Mike Mathis, manager of publication and video services communications and community relations in the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts.
Some museums are grand. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, with its Greek columns and arched entries. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, known for its towering staircase that fictional boxer Rocky Balboa famously scaled. The Guggenheim, with its domed skylight and spiral ramp gallery.
The founders and curators of the New Jersey Supreme Court Virtual Museum, a website that chronicles the rich history of the state’s highest court, wanted visitors to experience something different.
They wanted to create a website that would allow lawyers, students and the public to have an interactive, educational experience learning about the court and its key figures through photographs, videos, speeches and correspondence.
Unlike traditional brick and mortar museums, the Virtual Museum is open 24/7 and there is no admission fee. The public can be accessed the site by visiting njcourts.gov.
Among the “exhibits” in the Virtual Museum are detailed biographical profiles of the first seven Supreme Court chief justices to serve under the 1947 New Jersey Constitution, photographs of the Court dating from 1948 and pictures of the Court’s old courtroom and adjoining conference room in the Statehouse Annex, both of which are now legislative hearing rooms.
An extensive video section that includes swearing-in ceremonies and interviews with Chief Justices Richard J. Hughes and Robert N. Wilentz conducted for the former New Jersey Network also is featured.
“The Virtual Museum is a modern way to showcase the history and work of the New Jersey Supreme Court and its key figures,” said retired Supreme Court Associate Justice James H. Coleman Jr., who chairs the New Jersey Supreme Court Historical Advisory Board.
New Jersey has had a Supreme Court since before it became a state on Dec. 18, 1787. However, the Supreme Court did not become the state’s highest appellate court until the adoption of the current state constitution. New Jersey’s first constitution, in 1776, included a court of appeals, which was then the state’s court of last resort. The state constitution of 1844 established the Court of Errors and Appeals as the state’s highest court, deriving its name from its function of hearing appeals and correcting errors of lower courts. That court was abolished after voters approved the 1947 constitution establishing today’s New Jersey Supreme Court, which held its first session in the Statehouse Annex in Trenton on Sept. 15, 1948.
The Virtual Museum is maintained by the Historical Advisory Board, which Chief Justice Rabner formed in 2016 to preserve the history of the Supreme Court. The board is composed of sitting and retired justices and judges, as well as law school professors, deans and attorneys.
The board’s work includes short- and long-term projects; identifying, locating, and researching materials for the Court’s collection; locating and collecting Court-related artifacts; identifying and placing markers or plaques on historically significant Court sites; commemorating significant historical anniversaries and publishing books. The board also recommends content for the Virtual Museum and decides which notable cases will be included. A committee staff person assists with updating the museum, outreach efforts and administrative duties.
“We hope the public will take the opportunity to explore the Virtual Museum and learn about the history of the Supreme Court and the New Jersey Judiciary,” Chief Justice Rabner said.
The first two projects undertaken by the board involved researching and writing extensive biographies of the seven former chief justices who served under the 1947 constitution and an oral history project in collaboration with the Rutgers Oral History Archives (ROHA) conducting in-depth interviews of living chief justices and associate justices.
The biographies of the chief justices highlight the early lives, educations, tenures and later years of Arthur T. Vanderbilt (1948-1957), Joseph Weintraub (1957-1973), Pierre Garvin (1973), Richard J. Hughes (1973-1979), Robert N. Wilentz (1979-1996), Deborah T. Poritz (1996-2006), and James R. Zazzali (2006-2007). The biographies were posted to the Virtual Museum last fall.
In the oral history interviews, which were conducted by ROHA and recorded by a staff videographer, the justices describe how the court dealt with topics including school funding, fair housing practices, end-of-life issues and discrimination.
Interviews and transcripts of conversations with Justices Gary Stein and Stewart Pollock were posted to the Virtual Museum in May; videos of other former members of the Court will be posted in the coming months.
“Building the Virtual Museum will take time and will be done with great care to preserve and promote the great legacy of the New Jersey Supreme Court through documentary projects such as the oral history project,” said Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the courts and a member of the board. “The efforts to record and memorialize the rich history of the New Jersey Judiciary represent a wonderful opportunity to preserve and maintain that proud legacy of achievement.”
To donate photographs, documents and artifacts related to the New Jersey Supreme Court, contact Mike Mathis in the Judiciary’s Office of Communications and Community Relations, at 609-815-2900 ext. 52352 or at Mike.Mathis@njcourts.gov.