Senate panel backs Christie pick for N.J. Supreme Court

Judge Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina has ruled for Camden in cases involving a curfew and police.
Judge Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina has ruled for Camden in cases involving a curfew and police. (TIM LARSEN / N.J. Governor's Office)
Posted: October 19, 2013

TRENTON The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously approved Gov. Christie's nomination of Faustino Fernandez-Vina to the New Jersey Supreme Court, though not before grilling the Camden County Superior Court assignment judge on hot-button issues.

Democrats pressed Fernandez-Vina on same-sex marriage, abortion, and Supreme Court decisions on affordable housing and school funding, but elicited no opinions from the nominee, who said repeatedly that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on decisions by other judges and that his opinions would have no bearing on how he would decide a case.

"I will review the facts completely, understand the facts to the best of my ability, and review the law, and make my decision based on facts and law," Fernandez-Vina said.

The committee voted, 13-0, to approve him.

If confirmed by the Senate, Fernandez-Vina - who is said to be a Republican - will replace Helen Hoens, also a Republican, on the state's high court. The Cuban-born judge, who lives in Barrington and graduated from Rutgers-Camden Law School, would be the only member of the court from South Jersey.

The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), said Thursday that he did not know when the Senate might take up the nomination.

Christie nominated Fernandez-Vina in August, when he said he would not renominate Hoens in the midst of a battle with Democrats over the composition of the court.

"I was not going to let her loose to the animals," Christie said.

In 2010, Christie refused to reappoint Justice John Wallace, a Democrat and the only African American on the court. The decision ended a decades-long practice of reappointing justices to the court, which traditionally had been split, 4-3, between Democrats and Republicans.

While Christie said it was his prerogative to make the court less activist, Democrats said he was interfering with judicial independence and trying to make the court more conservative.

Since then, Democrats have blocked several Christie nominations. Two seats on the seven-member panel are vacant, temporarily filled by Appellate Division judges.

Asked Thursday by Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen) whether he was troubled by attacks on the court's independence, Fernandez-Vina said, "It's not something I believe affects me."

A Superior Court judge since 2004 who became assignment judge for the Camden vicinage in 2012, Fernandez-Vina left Cuba for the United States with his family at age 10. "Communism had stolen everything my family had worked to achieve," he said.

He knew no English but "adapted and learned." Motivated by "a deep respect for the rule of law," Fernandez-Vina said, he decided to go to law school. He worked as a trial lawyer for 22 years before he became a judge.

Scutari and other senators said Thursday that they could find no one who spoke poorly of Fernandez-Vina. His demeanor, courtroom experience, and personal background drew praise. "This embodies the American dream," said Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R., Passaic).

Still, he faced vigorous questions about his opinions on several Supreme Court decisions, including a 2011 decision affirming a trial court's ruling that overturned a jury award deemed by the judge too generous. Scutari pressed Fernandez-Vina for his views on judges' and juries' roles in deciding cases and awarding damages.

"I believe in the jury system," Fernandez-Vina said. As a judge, he said, "I make decisions based on what's presented to me, the law, and the facts."

Scutari grew frustrated when Fernandez-Vina did not answer questions on whether abortion and same-sex marriage were legal in New Jersey. "It would be inappropriate for me to comment" on same-sex marriage, Fernandez-Vina said, noting that the Supreme Court is hearing an appeal of a recent trial court decision to allow same-sex marriage.

"I'm not asking you how you would decide," Scutari said. "That's like asking you what's the speed limit on the turnpike. . . . There's an answer to that question."

Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union) said he could not vote for Fernandez-Vina and left the room after the judge said he could not comment on whether the state constitution prohibited exclusionary zoning by municipalities.

But Lesniak returned and voted for Fernandez-Vina. He said he assumed that the judge's philosophy would be similar to that of Hoens, "who I think should be reappointed." Lesniak told the Newark Star-Ledger in July that Democrats should reject Hoens as payback for Christie's refusal to renominate Wallace.

Democrats previously confirmed Fernandez-Vina's nomination to Superior Court in 2004 and again to a tenured position in 2011.

Christie said when he nominated Fernandez-Vina that the judge was a Republican. A Camden County election official, however, said Fernandez-Vina was listed as a Democrat, but said he believed the listing was a mistake.

Scutari said Thursday that Fernandez-Vina told him privately that he was a registered Republican. Scutari said there were no plans to hold hearings for two other Christie nominees: Robert Hanna, president of the Board of Public Utilities, and Superior Court Judge David Bauman of Monmouth County. Both were nominated in December.

"We have the choice as to who we're going to select," Scutari said. "This is the person we decided to select."


mhanna@phillynews.com

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@maddiehanna

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