Daughter of Immigrants to Be 1st Black Woman on N.J. Supreme Court

By 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Aug. 24, 2020

Fabiana Pierre-Louis and her sons at a June event announcing her nomination to the New Jersey Supreme Court.Credit...

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Fabiana Pierre-Louis, a daughter of Haitian immigrants, is on track to become the first Black woman to sit on New Jersey’s highest court, serving at a time when the state and the country remain deeply divided over racial and economic injustice.

Ms. Pierre-Louis, 39, will also be the only Black judge currently seated on the New Jersey Supreme Court and, as its youngest member, could serve for as many as three decades.

A former assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Ms. Pierre-Louis was nominated by Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, to the post in June, as protesters across the nation, outraged by the death of George Floyd while in police custody, were demanding criminal justice reform.

The State Senate’s Democrat-led Judiciary Committee confirmed Ms. Pierre-Louis’s nomination on Monday at a hearing where lawmakers noted the groundbreaking nature of her appointment, as well as her potential to shape the court’s decisions for the next 30 years.

I am very proud to vote for a new generation, a new balance on the Supreme Court,” said Senator Loretta Weinberg, the majority leader. The Senate is expected to approve the committee’s recommendation on Thursday.

Ms. Pierre-Louis, who grew up in working-class Irvington, N.J., said in an interview soon after her nomination that she was aware her background would play a role in the way she approached cases.

“Having a perspective and understanding of what it is like to live in Irvington, or other places,” she added, “it just informs how you experience many things in life.”

Ms. Pierre-Louis, a partner at a private law firm who lives with her husband and their two young sons in Mount Laurel, N.J., spoke Creole before she learned English.

She moved as a child from Brooklyn to Irvington, a northern New Jersey township just west of Newark, where her family bought a house. Her father owned and drove a cab, she said, and her mother transported patients at a New York City hospital.

When asked in the interview about the protests that followed Mr. Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, she said, “I think that what people are seeking is a society where everyone is treated fairly and justly and equally under the law.”

She added that as a judge she would “look with a very critical eye at cases involving search warrants and whether there was probable cause.”

On Monday, she told lawmakers at the hearing that as a federal prosecutor she learned to make tough choices, including whether cases “should be pursued, and whether those cases should be charged — or should not.”

Mr. Murphy has reappointed two sitting justices, but Ms. Pierre-Louis is his first nomination to the high court, which has not had a Black justice since former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, refused in 2010 to extend the term of John E. Wallace Jr.

As a young graduate of Rutgers Law School in Camden, N.J., Ms. Pierre-Louis worked as a law clerk for Justice Wallace. She noted during the hearing that he remained a mentor.

Ms. Pierre-Louis, who called the nomination the “honor of a lifetime,” would replace Justice Walter F. Timpone, who will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 later this year.

It is not her first time breaking barriers. As an assistant federal prosecutor, she was the first woman of color to hold the posts of attorney-in-charge in both the Camden and Trenton offices of the U.S. attorney for New Jersey.

She said her humble upbringing and immigrant roots had shaped her point of view.

“It’s part of who I am,” she said. “It’s part of my identity.”

Senator Nicholas P. Scutari, the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he originally thought Ms. Pierre-Louis was too young for the position, being at least 20 years younger than the next youngest person on the bench.

But, he said, interviews and a background check convinced him that she was more than prepared.

“I haven’t found one person to say one thing negative about this nominee,” Senator Scutari said, “and that is hard.”

During the hearing, she was asked to defend her decision to wear an orange ribbon to a news conference that Mr. Murphy held in June to announce her nomination. She said she understood the ribbon, promoted by a group called Orange Ribbons for Gun Safety, to be a symbol of support for victims of gun violence.

“I was not and did not intend to take any particular sides,” she told lawmakers.

But she was pressed by a Republican senator, Michael J. Doherty, about the group’s goal, as stated on its website, to advocate for “common-sense gun safety” by promoting policies and candidates for political office. He asked her whether she could remain an impartial judicial referee on legal issues involving guns.

“You have to be independent of Governor Murphy,” Senator Doherty said about participants at the event wearing orange ribbons they were handed. “He put you in a really bad spot.”

She was also asked about her prosecution of a reported sexual assault of a visibly drunken female member of the National Guard at a New Jersey Army military base known as Fort Dix. The man accused of the assault, a fellow member of the National Guard, was not convicted.

“I was never afraid of taking on the difficult cases if I believed that it was the right thing to do,” she said after explaining why the case was hard to prove. “I believed the witnesses in the case. I believed their statements.”

“I still believe that it was the right thing to do,” she added.

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