Faustino Fernandez-Vina, nominated Monday by Gov. Chris Christie to replace Justice Helen Hoens on the New Jersey Supreme Court, carries an extensive résumé on and off the bench.
Camden County’s assignment judge, known for his self-deprecating humor and fairness, was a civil defense lawyer for 22 years before taking the bench nine years ago.
Plus, as a native of Cuba, he would become the second Hispanic justice on the court. Like Roberto Rivera-Soto, who served from 2004 to 2011, Fernandez-Vina is a Republican from southern New Jersey, and several lawyers say he was on Gov. James McGreevey’s short list when Rivera-Soto was nominated.
The Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey, through its president Louis Acevedo, said of the nomination, “Judge Fernandez-Vina has distinguished himself on the trial court bench, and we firmly believe that all of New Jersey’s residents will benefit from having a highly qualified, experienced and diverse Supreme Court.”
Fernandez-Vina, 61, a resident of Barrington Borough, was born in Santiago, Cuba, and came to the United States when he was in third grade. He 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 also practiced legal malpractice defense.
He was at the firm for six years before McGreevey named him to the Superior Court in 2004. He was approved for tenure in 2011, after Christie tapped him for a second term.
He has sat in the Civil and Family parts and was presiding civil judge in Camden from February 2007 until February 2012, when Chief Justice Stuart Rabner chose him to replace Francis Orlando Jr. as assignment judge.
Several of Fernandez-Vina’s more notable decisions have involved suits brought by and against attorneys.
He refused in 2012 to dismiss on immunity grounds a suit against state officials by Assistant Deputy Public Defender Lorraine Gormley-Devine, who was assaulted by a client during a visit at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital. An appeals court reversed in 2012 but the Supreme Court granted certification. The case has not been argued.
In February 2008, he granted summary judgment on a federal civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. 1983 brought by Elliot Stomel, a former part-time Camden public defender.
Stomel claimed he was not reappointed because he refused to donate $5,000 to the election campaign of Camden Mayor Milton Milan. The decision was upheld on appeal.
Fernandez-Vina threw out a malpractice case against Tuckerton solo Howard Butensky over his role in two land deals 20 years apart.
In 1986, Butensky had represented the buyer and in 2005, he represented the sellers of an adjoining parcel on which the earlier client had a right of first refusal, stemming from the 1986 transaction.
The first buyer sued over Butensky’s alleged conflict and failure to record the right of first refusal. Fernandez-Vina found no duty owed to the first client but was reversed on appeal in 2009.
Another malpractice case, tried before Fernandez-Vina to a $362,000 verdict in 2006, was reversed on appeal based on insufficiently detailed jury instructions and verdict sheet.
The case was unusual in that it was brought by a carrier, Safe Step Reinsurance, against a defense lawyer who allegedly botched a products liability case, Israel Eisenberg of Post & Schell in Voorhees.
In other decisions of interest, he:
• Added environmental engineers and consultants to the list of professionals exempt from suit under the Consumer Fraud Act, decided in April 2008.
• Denied a mortgage assignee’s effort to intervene in condemnation proceedings. An appeals court affirmed in February but the Supreme Court agreed in June to review the case.
• Dismissed a case after the plaintiff’s sole request for a trial adjournment, following five defense requests that had been granted. An appeals panel upheld the decision last October as consistent with rule changes designed to “establish firm and meaningful trial dates.”
• Barred a woman from suing over auto accident injuries because, unbeknownst to her, her ex-husband failed to pay her insurance premiums, as he had agreed. The ruling was affirmed.
Two decisions in the past 14 months have involved Camden city government.
In June 2012, Fernandez-Vina ruled against allowing a vote on whether the economically strapped municipality could disband its own police department to be replaced by a county-wide force.
More recently, in April, he rejected a challenge to the city’s 11 p.m. curfew brought by a community activist and several businesses, including 7-Eleven.
He held that the curfew, adopted to curtail crime, was a “valid exercise of police power” and not a land use ordinance, as the plaintiffs had argued.
In his view, it was “reasonable related to the stated purpose [of] improving the quality of life for residents,” based on expert testimony that areas near late-night restaurants and food sellers experienced higher crime than other areas. The decision is on appeal.
Lawrenceville solo Glenn Bergenfield, who represented about a half-dozen legal malpractice plaintiffs in cases defended by Fernandez-Vina and tried a case before him, describes him as a tough adversary, but like the football player he once was, with “an athlete’s sense of fair play. You hit the other guy hard but nobody takes it personally.”
Fernandez-Vina played football at Haddon Heights High School, where he was voted an All Conference and All Group II All Star, and at Widener, where he was an All Star offensive guard.
Lawyers who know him believe “Fuzzy” originated with his high school football team and was a play on his first name, Faustino, rather than an observation about his appearance.
People still call him that, though not in court.
Bergenfield says he was “a little bit nervous” when Fernandez-Vina went on the bench that he would be pro-defense, given his background, but found that fear unfounded in the one case he has tried before him.
He says he was pleasantly surprised that Fernandez-Vina was not like some trial lawyers who become judges and are impatient and are too ready to jump in when they think something isn’t being done right, rather than sitting back and “waiting to call balls and strikes.”
Fernandez-Vina “ruled pretty decisively when asked to but otherwise stayed out of it.”
A former law partner, Jeffrey Craig of CraigAnninBaxter, praises Fernandez-Vina as “always helpful to other lawyers in the firm … with regard to courtroom skills.”
He also mentions his “terrific sense of humor” and his fondness for going to lunch with his partners and regaling them with war stories, which they would jokingly refer to as the “Book of Fuzzy.”
Another former law partner, Robert Baxter, who used to go sailing with Fernandez-Vina on a 36-foot boat they jointly owned, calls him very social and “one of the smartest people I know,” adding that he hides it “so as to not come off as pretentious.”
Camden County Bar President Gary Boguski, of Taylor & Boguski in Mount Laurel, describes Fernandez-Vina as down to earth, evenhanded and respectful.
His jokes often target himself or even other judges, but he is careful not to embarrass anyone he doesn’t know and “I have never heard him say anything off-color or ‘politically incorrect.’”
Fernandez-Vina was active in a range of professional activities before going on the bench.
He served on the executive committee of the State Bar Association’s Civil Trial Bar Section and was involved in the attorney discipline process as a member of the District IV Ethics Committee.
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.
In addition, he is a member of the Supreme Court Ad Hoc Committee on the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Judicial Council Labor Relations and Personnel Committee.
Christie did not renominate Hoens because Democrats indicated they would block her in retaliation for his not giving tenure to former Justice John Wallace Jr.