Governor Murphy nominates former public defender to state Supreme Court

Phil Murphy with Michael Noriega

by Nikita Biryukov, New Jersey Monitor

Gov. Phil Murphy has chosen Michael Noriega, a criminal defense, immigration, and personal injury attorney, to fill a vacancy on New Jersey’s highest court, the governor announced Monday.

“There are no words that can fully capture the tremendous privilege I feel in being nominated,” Noriega said during an announcement in the Statehouse rotunda. “I am humbled to find myself, once again, called upon to serve this great state and its people.”

Noriega, a former public defender who is now a partner at the law firm headed by Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union), would fill the seat left vacant by former Justice Barry Albin’s July 2022 retirement.

If confirmed by the state Senate, Noriega, a Democrat, would become the first former public defender to sit on New Jersey’s high court.

“Folks, that experience matters,” Murphy said. “Public defenders see firsthand how the law impacts ordinary people. A public defender does not get to choose their clients. More often than not, they represent individuals from our most marginalized communities in their greatest moment of need.”

Noriega, who has argued cases before the state Supreme Court on behalf of the ACLU, would also become the third Hispanic justice in state history. Noriega is a son of Peruvian immigrants.

New Jersey’s Supreme Court has not had a permanent Hispanic member since former Justice Faustino Fernandez Vina retired from the court in February 2022.

His confirmation would also bring the court to a full cohort for the first time since Justice Jaynee LaVecchia retired in December 2021. Appellate Division Judge Jack Sabatino has filled the vacant Supreme Court seat since Chief Justice Stuart Rabner temporarily elevated him to the high court last August.

“Restoring the Supreme Court to a full bench for the first time since December 2021 marks an important step in upholding the independence and integrity of our Judiciary, as well as ensuring that our state’s highest court better reflects the diversity of our great state,” said Jeralyn Lawrence, president of the New Jersey Bar Association.

Noriega’s nomination is unlikely to be stalled significantly by senatorial courtesy, an unwritten rule that allows senators to unilaterally and indefinitely block gubernatorial nominees from their home county or legislative district. Sen. Holly Schepisi’s invocation of courtesy held up Justice Rachel Wainer Apter’s nomination for more than a year.

Bramnick, the only Republican with the power to block nominees from Union County, indicated he would grant courtesy.

“He is a common sense, smart, and just a beautiful human being who deserves to be a Supreme Court justice,” Bramnick said.

Anti-Abortion Democrat Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union) said he has made no decision but looks forward to meeting with Noriega, adding he is glad Murphy nominated a Hispanic man to the Supreme Court. 

A spokesperson for Senate President Nicholas “N-Show Nick” Scutari (D-Union) did not immediately return a request for comment.

A New Jersey State Bar Association committee must approve Noriega before the governor formally makes the nomination and before Noriega comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee or a full vote before the upper chamber.

It’s not clear when lawmakers will seek to confirm Noriega. Legislators break for the summer after passing an annual budget in late June.

The governor is expected to make at least one more nomination to the state Supreme Court before leaving office. Justice Lee Solomon, a Republican, will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 on Aug. 17, 2024.

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