Two-term New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne, celebrated for his accomplishments as executive but equally influential as a lawyer and mentor, is being remembered as steadfastly ethical and courageous by fellow practitioners, including those who once worked with him in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. He died Thursday at age 93.
Byrne had a reputation for ethical behavior, perhaps first earned when an organized crime figure, Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo, was caught on tape saying—now famously—that Byrne couldn’t be bribed.
But other, unheralded examples of his integrity abounded, it seems.
Justin Walder, who worked under Byrne as an assistant prosecutor in Essex, recounted one story: Walder said he was handling a death penalty case with two defendants, and that the state Supreme Court had ruled that certain discovery did not have to be made available to the defendants.
“I wasn’t comfortable with that because it was a death penalty case, so I asked Brendan what to do,” said Walder, of Hackensack’s Pashman Stein Walder Hayden.
“Give it to them,” Walder quoted Byrne as saying about the discovery materials. “Just do the right thing.”
Barry Evenchick, who also was an assistant prosecutor under Byrne, agreed about his reputation for insisting on ethical practices.
“He always gave the honest answer,” said Evenchick, also of Pashman Stein. ”That was his reputation.”
There are a phalanx of attorneys, he said, that matured under Byrne’s tenure as prosecutor. “It’s almost a cult,” Evenchick said.
“What stands out was his personal integrity and raw courage,” said former New Jersey Chief Justice James Zazzali, another of Byrne’s former assistant prosecutors—and later, attorney general appointed by Byrne.
“He knew what was right,” added Zazzali, of Newark’s Zazzali, Fagella, Nowak, Kleinbaum & Friedman.
Often remembered for shepherding through the legalization of casino gambling and for appointing Chief Justice Robert Wilentz to what would become the most influential state Supreme Court of the modern constitutional era in New Jersey, Byrne was a practicing lawyer first. He got his start as a private practitioner in Essex County, after serving in the military during World War II and graduating from Princeton University and Harvard Law.
A West Orange native, Byrne was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1951.
Byrne, a Democrat, began his career in public service in October 1955, when he was appointed an assistant counsel to Gov. Robert Meyner, and later executive secretary. In 1958, Byrne was appointed the deputy attorney general responsible for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. The next year, Meyner appointed him Essex County prosecutor.
From 1968 to 1970, Byrne served as the president of the Board of Public Utilities.
In 1970, Byrne was nominated by Gov. William Cahill, a Republican, to the Superior Court. He served as the assignment judge for Morris, Sussex and Warren counties. In April 1973, Byrne resigned from the Superior court to run for governor, ultimately defeating the Republican nominee, U.S. Rep. Charles Sandman.
During his first term, Byrne was responsible for enacting the state’s income tax, which was used to pay for school funding. It was speculated that it would cost him a second term.
That proved not to be true. Byrne faced 10 opponents in the 1977 Democratic primary, including future Gov. James Florio. However, Byrne obtained the party’s nomination, and went on to defeat Republican state Sen. Raymond Bateman in the general election.
It was during his second term that Byrne focused on the passage of the Pinelands Protection Act, the expansion of the state’s interstate system and legalized gambling in Atlantic City.
After leaving office in 1982, Byrne became a senior partner at what became Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello, in Roseland.
“We are all deeply saddened by Brendan’s passing. He was a true patriot and a great defender of New Jersey,” Carella Byrne chairman Charles Carella said in a statement on behalf of the firm. “We will all miss his wit, wisdom and professionalism. It was an honor to be his friend and to practice law with him for over 58 years.”
Byrne also was a longtime member of the Law Journal’s Editorial Board.
“As a long-time member of the editorial board, Governor Byrne was a leader, mentor and friend to us all—humble, funny, fair and wise,” said board chairwoman Rosemary Alito, of K&L Gates’ Newark office, in a statement. “He showed us through his everyday actions what the best of public service and lawyering can be. He will be sorely missed.”
Republican Gov. Chris Christie, in a statement, said: “On a personal note, Mary Pat and I express our deepest condolences to his wife Ruthi and his entire family. I considered Governor Byrne a mentor and a friend. My life is richer for having known him as I am sure are the lives of every person who had the privilege to meet him.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, also issued a statement, saying Byrne “provided strong and determined leadership at a pivotal time in the state’s history, shaping policies on a wide range of issues that continue to have an influence on the quality of life to this day. Among his accomplishments were bringing casino gambling to Atlantic City, the creation of NJ Transit, the preservation of the Pinelands, public financing of gubernatorial campaigns, and passage of the state income tax to fund public schools and reduce property taxes.”
Byrne and his successor as governor, Republican Thomas Kean, co-wrote a column in The Star-Ledger of Newark, in which they discussed state and national politics. In 2016, Byrne lent his support to Christie’s ultimately unsuccessful run for president, saying Christie was the “best candidate the Republicans have.”
Byrne is survived by his wife, Ruthi, three sons, three daughters and nine grandchildren.