If Stuart Rabner is confirmed as Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, he could potentially serve as the state's top jurist for the next 23 years — serving until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of seventy in 2030.
In New Jersey, the Chief Justice is effectively the CEO of the judicial branch — with the extraordinarily powerful assignment of single handedly determining who serves as Appellate Court Judges and deciding assignments for Superior Court Judges.
Rabner would become the third consecutive former Attorney General to serve as Chief Justice: James Zazzali, who took the post last year and must retire when he turns seventy in October, was Attorney General under Governor Brendan Byrne in the 1970's and was named Associate Justice by Governor Christine Todd Whitman in 2000; and Deborah Poritz, the Chief Justice from 1996 to 2006, who was Whitman's Attorney General.
He would become the eighth Chief Justice since the current state Constitution was ratified in 1947. Arthur Vanderbilt, considered at the architect of the state judicials system as a leading member of the '47 Constitutional Convention, held the post for eleven years. He was followed by Associate Justice Joseph Weintraub, who had been on the top court for nearly a year; Weintraub was Chief Justice until his retirement sixteen years later.
Weintraub's successor was Pierre Garven, a former Assembly Clerk, Judge and Chief Counsel to Governor William Cahill (and the son of the former Mayor of Bayonne), who was appointed in 1973. Garven served just 49 days in office; he died at age 47, less than a week after suffering a stroke. (Garven had spent just three months as an Associate Justice before becoming Chief.)
Garven's death came just a few weeks before the gubernatorial election, and Cahill, a lame duck who had lost the June GOP primary, decided to wait until after the election. In consultation with Governor-elect Byrne, he nominated former Governor Richard Hughes. Hughes was Chief Justice for six years.
In 1979, Byrne appointed Robert Wilentz, an ex-Assemblyman and the scion of a powerful political family — his father, David Wilentz, was the legendary Middlesex County Democratic boss and as state Attorney General in the 1930's, prosecuted the Lindbergh kidnapping case, and his brother, Warren Wilentz, was the 1966 Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. Wilentz was widely viewed as the most controversial of the state's eight Chief Justices. He was seen as a strong-willed judicial activist, although even his detractors acknowledged his strong intellect.
Despite strong criticism from his own party, Republican Governor Thomas Kean reappointed the 59-year-old Wilentz to a tenured term on the top court. Wilentz's record and his New York residency — Wilentz moved to Manhattan while his wife was undergoing cancer treatement — nearly ended his judicial career. The Senate initially refused his confirmation — the board was kept open for three hours at 20-19 — one vote short — as Kean and then-Senate President John Russo lobbied furiously for a 21st vote. Kean eventually got Wilentz to agree to a compromise — that he would move back to New Jersey or resign –and Lee Laskin, a GOP Senator from Camden County, voted to confirm.
Wilentz resigned in 1996, after sixteen years as Chief Justice and just three weeks before he died of cancer at age 69. He was succeeded by Poritz, the first woman Chief Justice, who served for ten years.