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Chief Justice Richard J. Hughes

Chief Justice Richard J. Hughes (1973-1979)


New Jersey’s Chief Justices have all been learned in the law, and have come from diverse backgrounds in public and community service which prepared them to serve as the head of the third branch of state government. Yet only one served as head of the first branch of government, namely, two terms as Governor, prior to becoming Chief Justice. That person was Richard J. Hughes. Our Justice Complex in Trenton bears his name, and for good reason. Throughout half a century of public service, his fingerprints are all over New Jersey history.

Affable, shrewd and compassionate are all words that help describe Dick Hughes, but underneath his political persona was a  brilliant mind and a caring heart that worked together tirelessly  to establish social reforms to improve the lives of others. Everyone from unwed mothers and struggling students, to prison inmates, drew his concern when establishing public policy. Hughes cared deeply about ordinary people and never forgot his humble roots, growing up in Burlington County in a family that toiled to make ends meet.

Having come of age during the Great Depression, Hughes was a "FDR Democrat" who believed that government existed to serve the people. As both Governor and Chief Justice, Richard Hughes used his extraordinary talents as a tactician, negotiator and a bridge between competing interests, to forge a majority or nurture a compromise – whatever it took – to advance the public agenda. Though remembered by most for his opinion in the Karen Ann Quinlan "right to die" case, Chief Justice Hughes brought his compassion and intellect to all he did, and left behind a legacy that personifies New Jersey’s court system.

Richard J. Hughes succeeded Chief Justice Garvin in 1973, and after 6 years of service – at the Constitutionally-mandated age of 70 – was succeeded by Chief Justice Robert Wilentz. During the brief period between the death of Garvin and the appointment of Hughes, Senior Associate Justice Nathan Jacobs served as Acting Chief Justice.

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Starting Out

As was common at the time of his birth, Hughes was born at home, delivered by the family physician, on August 10, 1909. His parents were Richard Paul Hughes and Veronica Gallagher Hughes of Florence, New Jersey. Richard was soon joined by a brother and two sisters. They were a blue collar, working-class family. Hughes’ father was a factory worker who became very involved in Burlington County politics, serving as Mayor or Burlington City and Democratic Leader. He was briefly appointed as Keeper of the Prison in Trenton; during his tenure he made significant improvements to the prison.

As the oldest in his family, young Richard often accompanied his father to various political meetings. Though his father was a staunch Democrat, he taught his son to work with everyone despite party affiliation. From his father’s example, Hughes learned the need to work with everyone to achieve social progress.

Hughes graduated from Cathedral High School in Trenton. It was at Cathedral High that he met Miriam McGory. She would become his wife, but their relationship was not to blossom until years later. At his mother’s urging, 18-year old Richard entered a seminary, St. Charles Boremao. He was enrolled for a year and a half, studying mostly liberal arts. Hughes did not have a calling to the priesthood and transferred to St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia for one semester. At that time, admission to law school did not require a college degree and Hughes convinced the Dean of New Jersey Law School to permit him enroll after one semester at St. Joseph’s.

Hughes graduated from law school in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression, and had difficulty finding work. After little more than three years, he lost his first position with a successful lawyer, Harry Heher, when his mentor became a judge. Heher later became a Supreme Court Justice in 1948. Hughes then opened his own law practice and survived through dedicated service to every client. He also began his political career in the Democratic Party and married his high school sweetheart, Miriam, in 1934.

Hughes quickly gained the respect in the estimation of other Democrats and was urged to run for Congress against an incumbent Republican. At that time Mercer County was primarily Republican and he was defeated. But Hughes always said that his race for Congress was a valuable learning experience. One of the skills he honed in that campaign was an ability to remember names, something which helped him immensely throughout his life.

Not long after his unsuccessful bid for Congress in December of 1939, Hughes became an Assistant United States Attorney. In that position, he prosecuted mail fraud, illegal tax withholding, and wartime subversion by members of the German-American Vocational League. His careful preparations, along with convictions, boosted his reputation and earned him the moniker, "the nemesis of Nazis in New Jersey."

It was at the U.S. Attorney’s Office that Hughes met Thorn Lord. Hughes and Lord formed a law firm upon leaving public service. They became partners in both law and politics. At the same time, in 1945, Hughes was chosen as Democratic leader of Mercer County. Through the efforts of Lord and Hughes, Mercer County was transformed into a Democratic stronghold.

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First Time Around on the Bench

Hughes loved the political life and giving speeches. Despite his devotion to politics, he gained stature as a lawyer and was soon offered a judgeship. New Jersey was about to adopt the 1947 Constitution which dramatically changed the Court system and Hughes was the last person sworn in to the "old" Court of Common Pleas. After the adoption of the new Constitution he was appointed to the "new" County Court.

Hughes’ performance as a Judge of the County Court led to his appointment by Governor Driscoll as a Superior Court Judge. Hughes always remembered that Driscoll had urged him to be fair and not to worry about what he, as Governor, wanted or what other officials might want. Hughes said that he often used similar language when he, as Governor, appointed people to the bench.

Chief Justice Arthur Vanderbilt recognized that Hughes’ intellectual and personal talents were ideal for thorny legal problems. Despite their differences in political persuasions, Vanderbilt relied on Hughes to handle many politically sensitive matters, presiding over cases in 11 different counties. Later, he served as Assignment Judge in Union County, a position Hughes greatly enjoyed. Although his professional life was fulfilling during those years, he suffered a profound loss when his wife, Miriam died suddenly in 1950. Hughes was at a meeting in Detroit concerning the juvenile justice system when Mariam was taken ill; he arrived home minutes after she died. Hughes was devastated; a widower with four children.

Two years later Hughes met Betty Murphy, a widow with three sons. They fell in love and married, and she became his soul mate. They had three children together, thus making a family of 10 children. Because the Murphy boys were very young when their father died, Hughes became their father together with the seven Hughes children.

After marrying Betty, Hughes could no longer afford to live on his judicial salary and in 1957 opened his own law firm. Hughes had one partner, James McLaughlin and one associate. With his excellent reputation earned from his ten years as a judge and his many friends in politics, his financial situation improved greatly. In addition to his financial success achieved in practicing law, Hughes was again involved in politics, something prohibited as a judge.

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In February of 1961, key Democratic leaders approached Hughes and urged him to run for Governor. After some hesitation at leaving his law practice, his love for politics overcame his concerns. Hughes was a gifted campaigner who worked tirelessly to win the election, yet his victory margin was small. He was helped by the misfortune of his opponent who broke his leg, limiting his ability to campaign. Hughes was also helped by the last minute decision of President John F. Kennedy to campaign on his behalf. It was a close vote with Hughes winning by a margin of little more than 35,000 votes out of more than 2.1 million votes cast.

Hughes’ years as Governor (1962-1969) made for exciting times in New Jersey. He was very much a "Franklin Roosevelt Democrat" who believed government’s role was to look after the people. Hughes worked tirelessly for social reforms to improve the lives and expand opportunities for all state residents. During his first term his primary concern was the need to expand state operations to serve a rapidly growing population that was becoming increasingly diverse. He also expanded his political agenda; he participated in the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City and forged a friendship with President Lyndon Johnson. Their friendship resulted in Hughes being asked in June, 1967, to help arrange the historic "Glassboro Summit" between Johnson and Russian Premier Alexei Kosygin which resulted in improved communications between the world’s two super powers.

Hughes’ second term involved legislative and administrative changes to the functions and organization of state government, particularly education. The Department of Higher Education - separate from the Department of Education was created in January 1967 with a chancellor and a state board to oversee the state universities and colleges. The county community college system was established in 1966, and construction was begun on new public medical schools at Newark and Piscataway between 1968 and 1970.

At the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Hughes chaired the credentials committee. Given the bitterness among Black and White Southern Democrats, it was an impossible job. He chaired the committee with his unerring sense of fairness and all the wit and wisdom he could muster. [For more on Hughes’ tenure as Governor of New Jersey go to:]

Upon leaving the governorship, Hughes returned to private practice and became a partner at an established law firm that happily changed its name to "Hughes, McElroy, Connell, Foley and Geiser." Many of the friends made while Governor sent him business and rather than sitting behind a desk pondering legal issues, he was trying cases in a courtroom. Hughes enjoyed the practice of law and made a comfortable salary.

While practicing law, Hughes was asked to chair the newly formed ABA Committee on Correctional Facilities. He accepted the opportunity because he was concerned about the problems of the prisons. He traveled extensively to get the Committee started, and worked with many other public service commissions.

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Appointment as Chief Justice

William Cahill, a Republican, succeeded Hughes as Governor. Cahill was a one-term Governor and toward the end of his term Chief Justice Joseph Weintraub retired. Governor Cahill appointed his chief counsel Pierre Garvin to be Chief Justice. Garvin died 7 weeks later. Cahill wanted to fill the vacancy while he was still Governor and out of respect for the election results – Democrat Brendan Byrne was elected in November, 1973 – decided to appoint Hughes as Chief Justice. Cahill knew Hughes well and was confident he would be an excellent Chief Justice. Though again it meant financial sacrifice, the allure of the position of Chief Justice was too much and he accepted.

When Hughes joined the New Jersey Supreme Court, it had already attained a reputation as a leader among state high courts. In significant part, this was the result of the use of the appointment system for the selection process; the Governor makes the appointment with the advice and consent of the Senate. Routinely, all appointments are made in consultation with the State Bar Association. This mimicked the method of appointment of the U.S. Supreme Court as opposed to the elected systems used in the majority of states where all judges run for office.

As Chief Justice, Hughes was responsible for the administration of the entire judicial system. One area in need of improvement was the Court’s relationship with New Jersey’s attorneys. A common method of payment of lawyers was/is the contingent fee system. This system permits a party with a claim (often personal injury) who may not be able to afford a lawyer, to do so by entering into a "contingent fee agreement" providing that the lawyer will receive a portion of the recovery if he/she wins, and nothing if she/he loses.

Under Chief Justice Weintraub the percentage that lawyers were permitted to charge had been significantly reduced - by Court Rule - creating an outrage in the legal community. When attorneys brought an action challenging the limitation on fees, Hughes supported the power of the Court to control fees but indicated changes could be made. Am. Trial Lawyers Assn., NJ Branch v. N.J. Sup. Ct., 66 N.J. 258 (1974) Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court changed the rules to allow a larger portion for trial lawyers.

Hughes had always enjoyed giving speeches and made himself available to appear before legal groups across the state. He also mandated that the judges visit the jails and prison to which they were sending convicted criminals.

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Quinlan Case

One decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court that may have attained the widest recognition was the Karen Anne Quinlan matter. In Re: Quinlan, 70 N.J. 10 (1976). It was the first case in the country to deal with the "right to die" and a case that had been closely watched around the world. Hughes’ decision in the Quinlan case became a major cause celeb. Walter Cronkite, the revered CBS News anchor, began his nightly news program with an announcement about the decision.

Karen Anne Quinlan, a young woman became ill and fell into a coma, the cause of which was never clearly identified. She was given excellent care but nothing the doctors did seemed to help. After an extended period in which Karen did not recover, the parents, devout Catholics, considered removing her life-support devices. They consulted with their spiritual advisor who felt that there was no moral prohibition on removing the life-support in this situation. The lower court decided that the life-support could not be removed. That ruling was based upon the fact that Karen did not fit the traditional brain-dead requirement considered to be the common law rule as to when life-supporting procedures could be eliminated.

Under the New Jersey Court Rules, the Supreme Court is empowered to take a case directly from the trial court without review by the Appellate Division, and did so in this instance. The Chief Justice normally decides who would writes the opinion in a case. Here, Hughes decided that he, as Chief Justice, should write the opinion. Hughes was also determined that the opinion had to be unanimous and he had extensive conversations with all the members, particularly with one justice who had considered writing his own opinion. After much discussion, Hughes achieved a consensus. A prompt issuance of the ruling was so important to Hughes that he cancelled a scheduled trip to Japan for a speaking engagement, and remained home to complete his written opinion. Hughes based his ruling for a unanimous court on the recently articulated doctrine of "right to privacy," which had been adopted by the U. S. Supreme Court.

After being weaned off life-support, Karen did not die and lived many more years in that condition, never regaining consciousness. When, years later, the U. S. Supreme Court heard a similar case the Court referred to the Quinlan opinion as the "seminal opinion in the area." It has been read by judges around the world.

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Public Education and Affordable Housing

Two other cases, or more accurately series of cases, also became famous in the legal world. They are Robinson v. Cahill which eventually would morph into Abbott v. Burke, together with Twp. of Mt. Laurel v. S. Burlington County NAACP, 67 N.J. 151 (1975) ("Mt. Laurel I") cert. denied 423 U.S. 808 (1974). These decisions represent numerous attempts by the court to improve education in one case and housing in the other.

Hughes had worked hard to improve education while he was Governor, and the Robinson v. Cahill cases raised the issue of adequacy of education in public schools. Throughout the state, education is handled by the local communities which provide the funding; the source is the same as for other services, namely, local property taxes. The upshot of such funding is that relatively affluent affluent communities are able to provide educational systems superior to those in many inner city communities which have lower tax ratables.

Prior to Hughes becoming Chief Justice, the High Court decided the first Robinson v. Cahillcase on a provision of the State Constitution requiring the state to provide a "thorough and efficient education to students 5-18 years old." This provision would eventually be discussed in many cases that followed. The State Legislature was mandated to provide sufficient funds to the schools in the poorer districts to provide a "thorough and efficient education." Recognizing that it was the Legislature’s responsibility, the Court granted time to provide an appropriate funding system; it failed to do so.

In 1976, the Hughes Court entered an Order advising the Legislature that in the event it could not resolve the issue of school funding, the High Court would indirectly prohibit the opening of any of the schools by refusing to allow state funds to go to any school system. There were three Robinson v. Cahill cases while Hughes was Chief Justice. Robinson v. Cahill II, 63 N.J. 196 (1973), Robinson v. Cahill III, 67 N.J. 333 (1975) and Robinson v. Cahill IV, 69 N.J. 133 (1975). Ultimately, the threats resulted in the Legislature adopting the state’s first income tax law.

Another important case decided by the Hughes’ Court was Twp. of Mt. Laurel v. S. Burlington County NAACP, 67 N.J. 151 (1975) cert. denied 423 U.S. 808 (1975). This case written by Justice Hall, focused on the expensive housing market in New Jersey and the fact that many low income citizens were unable to acquire affordable house. The perception was that many towns were engaged in "exclusionary zoning" by creating restrictions which prevented the construction of housing affordable by low-moderate income citizens. The Court decided that police power determinations of the municipalities must adhere to constitutional principles of due process and equal protection. This required many communities to rewrite their local zoning ordinances. There was great dissatisfaction from many who wanted their communities to retain their existing zoning regulations. It was the start of a series of cases that would continue for many years, into today.

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Notable Rulings

In the Farber case, In Re: Farber, 78 N.J. 259 (1978), the Court faced a conflict between two principles – both supported by Hughes – support for a free press and guarantee for a fair trial for defendants in criminal matters. The trial court had held that a newsman had an obligation to reveal information in a criminal case and held him in contempt of court for his refusal. The Supreme Court affirmed that decision. Hughes wrote a concurring opinion affirmatively acknowledging the importance of a free press but that it is second to the right of a person to a fair trial as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Prior to Hughes’ tenure, the High Court was recognized as a progressive court, yet one area in which it had not been progressive was in the area of the Fourth Amendment. That Amendment deals with the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Justice Weintraub as Chief Justice had resisted the more liberal decisions of the Warren Court (U. S. Supreme Court) in expanding protections under the Fourth Amendment. The U. S. Supreme Court had mandated that the Fourth Amendment was applicable to the states and had been broadly interpreting the Fourth Amendment to give greater rights to defendants.

Shortly before Hughes became Chief Justice, President Nixon had appointed a number of more conservative justices and the expansion of rights under the Fourth Amendment had slowed. Yet in a number of cases the Hughes Court demonstrated a stronger commitment to rights under the search and seizure protections. Because it could not use the Fourth Amendment to grant greater rights than those extended by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Hughes Court turned to the search and seizure provision in the New Jersey Constitution. Although the provisions were virtually identical, in State v. Johnson, 68 N.J. 349 (1975), the Hughes Court found that search invalid and the consent was not voluntary. Thereafter, the New Jersey Supreme Court continued to use the State Constitution to justify an approach more protective of individual rights in later cases dealing with search and seizure.

In the Gaulkin case, Application of Ellen Gaulkin, 61 N.J. 185 (1976) Hughes initially enforced a rule limiting the right of a judge’s spouse to participate in political activities. In that case Ellen Gaulkin was married to Judge Gaulkin and wanted to run for the Weehawken Board of Education. Judges in New Jersey are not allowed to be involved in politics and at that time the rule extended to the judge’s spouse. Mrs. Gaulkin sought permission from Chief Justice Hughes to run for School Board. Referring to the existing rule, Hughes denied her. She then sought review by the entire Court and won in a unanimous ruling written by Hughes recognizing her right to be involved in her community’s public affairs. Hughes showed that he was able to change his mind, and may have been influenced by his own wife who was an articulate and powerful force of her own.

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Hughes as Court Administrator

As Chief Justice, Hughes also spent much of his time on administrative duties. One area of concern was rehabilitation of prisoners. Because at that time Judges had the authority to determine where convicted defendants would spend their confinements, he wanted the judges to be aware of the impact and consequences of their decisions. In the mid-1970s all judges sitting in criminal matters spent several Saturdays on buses as they traveled to the various State correctional institutions including the Trenton State Psychiatric Hospital. Hughes was with them.

Hoping to make incarceration a last resort, he focused on creating a statewide pre-trial diversion program, essentially for first offenders. With the consent of the Prosecutor, criminal defendants were placed in the program for up to three years with vocational and educational components. Upon successful completion of the program, the charges would be dropped.

Hughes also worked to improve probation services. As an arm of the Judiciary, protocols and educational programs were developed under a statewide plan to improve the supervision of defendants placed on probation making it a meaningful alternative to incarceration.

Consistent with his individual-rights approach to the law, Hughes sought creation of a more appropriate procedure for the conduct of involuntary civil commitment proceeding. In 1975, a wholesale revision, including periodic review of the civil commitment procedures were embodied in Rule 4:74-7. The concept of model jury charges, bench manuals, and statewide educational programs for judges, including the first New Jersey Judicial College, commenced the same year.

Always the statesman, Hughes met periodically with a group of legislators to advocate for the needs of the Judiciary. For the first and only time in New Jersey History, on November 21, 1977, he addressed a joint session of the Legislature which was attended by the Governor and members of his cabinet as well as the entire Supreme Court. He argued for the need for greater funding for the Judiciary including a much needed pay raise for the judges. He also urged increased funding for pretrial intervention programs and sentencing reforms as well as the construction of more jail and prison facilities.

Hughes warned that failure to enact a pay raise could "foreshadow" indeed almost invite, a beginning deterioration in the New Jersey Court System. Eventually raises in Judge’s salaries were approved.

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The Lion in Winter

As required by the Constitution, when Hughes attained age 70, he left the bench, but he was not ready to retire. He went on to practice law with Joel Sterns, a close friend who had served as Counsel to the Governor in 1968-69.

New Jersey created a Hughes Professorship at Seton Hall Law School and Hughes was the first person to hold that position. The State also decided to name the Justice Center in Trenton in his honor – the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex. To this day, that Complex houses the New Jersey Supreme Court, the Appellate Division, the Attorney General’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, and other state offices.

Hughes remained active both in private practice and on legal and public service committees for many more years. His favorite interests were helping the visually impaired and the blind. He was always in great demand as a speaker at many events; his wit and intellect delighting his audiences. Richard J. Hughes departed this world at age 83 on December 7, 1992.

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Memoriam Ceremony

Memoriam Ceremony for the Honorable Richard J. Hughes Deb

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Supreme Court 1975 Supreme Court 1974


Conversation with Chief Justice Richard J. Hughes
A Conversation with Chief Justice Richard J. Hughes
Richard J. Hughes Anniversary Celebration
Richard J. Hughes Anniversary Celebration