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NJ Supreme Court History

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Overview of the Supreme Court

Welcome to the New Jersey Supreme Court Virtual Museum. Here you will find detailed biographical information about the chief justices and associate justices who have served on the court since the adoption of the 1947 New Jersey Constitution, notable cases, speeches, correspondence, videos and photographs of the court and court-related people and institutions.

Equally important, and interesting, you will find the life stories of some of the most dynamic people in New Jersey’s history. The website is a work in progress and will be updated often.

New Jersey has had a Court bearing the title “Supreme Court” since before we became a state on Dec. 18, 1787. However, the Supreme Court did not become the state’s highest appellate court until 1948. New Jersey’s first constitution in 1776 included a Court of Appeals, which was then the state’s court of last resort. The state constitution of 1844 established the Court of Errors and Appeals, which derived its name from its function of hearing appeals and correcting errors of lower courts. That Court was abolished when the 1947 state constitution established today’s New Jersey Supreme Court, which held its first session in its courtroom in the Statehouse Annex in Trenton on Sept. 15, 1948.

Biographical profiles of the first six Chief Justices to serve under the 1947 Constitution are contained below. Each of them were high-energy people who understood the importance of their role as a leader of the “Third Branch” of New Jersey Government.

The New Jersey Supreme Court is composed of a chief justice and six associate justices. As the highest appellate court, the Supreme Court reviews cases from the lower courts. Most litigants must request that the court hear their appeal by filing conflicting Appellate Division decisions.

In very limited circumstances, such as where a judge in the Appellate Division files a dissenting opinion, a party can appeal as of right to the Supreme Court. In deciding the cases that come before it, the court interprets the New Jersey and the U.S Constitution, New Jersey statutes, administrative regulations of the state’s governmental agencies and the body of common law.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner also serves as the administrative head for the court system and oversees the management of the state's courts.

State of New Jersey Constitutional Convention of 1947 Committee on The Judiciary

N.J. Constitutional Convention: Vol. 4, Page 5
N.J. Constitutional Convention: Vol. 4, Page 6
N.J. Constitutional Convention: Vol. 4, Page 7
N.J. Constitutional Convention: Vol. 4, Page 8
N.J. Constitutional Convention: Vol. 4, Page 9

Governor Alfred E. Driscoll's Role in the Court's Formation

Court System Before the 1947 Constitutional Convention

As discussed in the biographical sketches of the Chief Justices contained in this website, Arthur Vanderbilt was the indispensable bridge between a court system that worked only for political insiders to one that became a role model in the United States.

The basic framework of New Jersey’s court system prior to 1947 was created during the colonial era and prevailed for nearly two centuries. On July 2, 1776, the day that New Jersey’s provincial congress ratified the Declaration of Independence, it also approved our first constitution. Working in the shadow of war, the committee hastily crafted a document transferring all the powers of the royal governor to the legislature, making the new governor a mere figurehead, and creating s court system akin to Great Britain, but dominated by the legislature. Despite the 13 years between adoption of the Revolution-era constitution, and the new U.S. Constitution in 1789, no thought was given to taking a second look at the original charter. The state’s constitution was so poorly drawn that it drew the attention of James Madison who cited New Jersey’s constitution as inferior in Federalist Papers #47, warning: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” The result was a court system dominated by politicians with no regard for the rule of law.

Calls for revision of the constitution in 1790, 1797, 1819, 1827, and 1840, all failed. Finally, in 1844, a constitutional convention proposed a new constitution which was approved by the voters. Yet even then, little changed, particularly the courts which grew more chaotic and corrupt.

Following the turn of the 20th Century, and as other courts across America were being reformed to keep pace with the modern world, “Jersey justice” was the label attached to the rickety, corrupt conglomeration of courts that legal scholars and historians alike cited as the most archaic judicial system in America. As shown by the pre-1947 chart, our court system was so antiquated and incoherent that only the well-heeled, armed with politically connected lawyers, were confident of fair treatment. For anyone else, beware.

After more than two decades of battling, Arthur Vanderbilt and others had built a strong coalition of supporters from the legal, political and social communities, resulting in the approval of a June 1947 referendum providing for a constitutional convention convened at Rutgers University. The result was a modern unitary court system insuring accountability, coherence and respect for litigants.

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Supreme Court Historical Advisory Board

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner formed the New Jersey Supreme Court Historical Advisory Board to preserve and promote and to educate the public on the rich history of the state’s highest appellate court.


Judge Nelson C. Johnson (ret.)
Judge James H. Coleman Jr. (ret.). -Advisory Board Past Chair
Judge Stewart G. Pollock (ret.) -Advisory Board Past Chair


Hon. Nelson C. Johnson (ret.), Chair
Hon. James H. Coleman, Jr. (ret.) Advisory Board Past Chair
Hon. Stewart G. Pollock (ret.) Advisory Board Past Chair
Heather Joy Baker
Hon. Avion Benjamin
Hon. John W. Bissell (ret.)
Steven D. Bonville
Hon. Maritza Berdote Byrne
Hon. Phillip S. Carchman (ret.)
Hon. Amy Piro Chambers (ret.)
Dean Ronald K. Chen
Thomas Curtin
Hon. Linda R. Feinberg (ret.)
Hon. Glenn A. Grant
Hon. John A. Jorgensen
Hon. Virginia A. Long (ret.)
Hon. Paulette Sapp-Peterson (ret.)
Hon. Edwin H. Stern (ret.)
Hon. Menelaos Toskos (ret.)
Professor John B. Wefing
Professor Robert F. Williams

For more information about the board, its work or to donate photographs, documents and artifacts related to the New Jersey Supreme Court, contact Mike Mathis

Communications and Community Relations at
609-815-2900 ext. 52352