When 68-year-old Arthur Vanderbilt, the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and founding father of the state’s judicial system, died of a heart attack on June 16, 1957, it put Governor Robert Meyner in the position of filling three Supreme Court seats while in the midst of his own re-election bid.
Meyner’s decision for Vanderbilt’s successor was easy: he picked Joseph Weintraub, his 48-year-old former Chief Counsel. Weintraub had been an Associate Justice since November 1956 when Meyner picked him to replace William Brennan, who had been named to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Dwight Eisenhower.
The Governor then needed an Associate Justice to replace Weintraub, and another to replace Dayton Oliphant, who would reach the mandatory retirement age of seventy in October 1957. Oliphant, whose uncle, William Dayton, had been a U.S. Senator and the 1856 Republican nominee for Vice President, was a former Assembly Majority Leader and Mercer County Prosecutor; he spent thirty years on the bench.
In order to maintain a partisan balance of the top court, Meyner chose to appoint a Democrat to replace Weintraub and a Republican for Oliphant’s seat. Two of Meyner’s top choices were Superior Court Judges from Essex County, John Francis, a Democrat and Alfred Clapp, a Republican. Francis had won 46% as the Democratic candidate for Congress in 1944, and Clapp, 53, was a two-term Republican State Senator who resigned to become a Judge after losing the 1953 GOP gubernatorial primary.
The problem for Meyner was that there were already three Supreme Court Justice from Essex – Weintraub, William Wachenfeld, and Nathan Jacobs – and he didn’t want to go to more than four, especially five months away from Election Day.
So Meyner split Francis and Clapp into two groups, and reportedly decided that he would either pick Francis and Superior Court Judge Haydn Proctor, a former Republican Senate President from Monmouth County, or Clapp and Richard Hughes, a 48-year-old former Mercer County Democratic Chairman, candidate for Congress, and Assistant U.S. Attorney who had spent ten years as a Superior Court Judge. Meyner picked Francis and Proctor, who served until 1972 and 1973, respectively.
Meyner defeated State Sen. Malcolm Forbes, the millionaire magazine publisher, by a 55%-45% margin. During his eight years as Governor, he would make a total of eight appointments to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the most of any Governor in state history.
Had Meyner picked Hughes, New Jersey political history might have gone in a different direction. In 1961, Democratic leaders had settled on Grover Richman, the former U.S. Attorney and state Attorney General, as their candidate for Governor. But when the 49-year-old Richman suddenly dropped out of the race after suffering a heart attack, Democratic leaders chose Hughes as their candidate.
Had Hughes been sitting on the Supreme Court, it is possible that he would not have given up his seat on the Supreme Court after four years to run for Governor, where he was the underdog in the general election against former U.S. Secretary of Labor James Mitchell – a contest he won by a narrow 50%-49% margin?
Instead of going to the Supreme Court, Clapp returned to electoral politics. He resigned from the bench in 1959 to run for his old State Senate seat, which was won by Democrat Donal Fox, a former Assistant Essex County Prosecutor – the first Democrat to win the Essex Senate seat since 1908. Clapp beat former Essex County Prosecutor Charles Webb in the GOP primary, but lost the general election to Fox by a 53%-47% margin. The highly-respected Clapp continued to play a role in the legal and political community – he was Chairman of Thomas Kean’s 1977 gubernatorial campaign – until his death in 1988.