Courting Justice: Ten New Jersey Cases That Shook the Nation

Courting Justice: Ten New Jersey Cases That Shook the Nation

Courting Justice: Ten New Jersey Cases That Shook the Nation

Courting Justice: Ten New Jersey Cases That Shook the Nation


Since 1947 a modernized New Jersey Supreme Court has played an important and controversial role in the state, nation, and world. Its decisions in cutting-edge cases have confronted society's toughest issues, reflecting changing social attitudes, modern life's complexities, and new technologies.

Paul Tractenberg has selected ten of the court's landmark decisions between 1960 and 2011 to illustrate its extensive involvement in major public issues, and to assess its impact. Each case chapter is authored by a distinguished academic or professional expert, several of whom were deeply involved in the cases' litigation, enabling them to provide special insights. An overview chapter provides context for the court's distinctive activity.

Many of the cases are so widely known that they have become part of the national conversation about law and policy. In the Karen Ann Quinlan decision, the court determined the right of privacy extends to refusing life-sustaining treatment. The Baby M case reined in surrogate parenting and focused on the child's best interests. In the Mount Laurel decision, the court sought to increase affordable housing for low- and moderate-income residents throughout the state. The Megan's Law case upheld legal regulation of sex offender community notification. A series of decisions known as Abbott/Robinson required the state to fund poor urban school districts at least on par with suburban districts.

Other less well known cases still have great public importance. Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors reshaped product liability and tort law to protect consumers injured by defective cars; State v. Hunt shielded privacy rights from unwarranted searches beyond federal standards; Lehmann v. Toys 'R' Us protected employees from sexual harassment and a hostile work environment; Right to Choose v. Byrne expanded state constitutional abortion rights beyond the federal constitution; and Marini v. Ireland protected low-income tenants against removal from their homes.

For some observers, the New Jersey Supreme Court represents the worst of judicial activism; others laud it for being, in its words, "the designated last-resort guarantor of the Constitution's command." For Tractenberg, the court's activism means it tends to find for the less powerful over the more powerful and for the public good against private interests, an approach he applauds.


This book and each of its chapters tell a fascinating and important story, a story about the origins of New Jersey’s modern judiciary, about the framework within which the state’s highest court functions, and about the cases that stand as examples of the court’s finest work. It is a story of an independent court system and the search for justice as the peculiar and specific charge of the judicial branch within a framework of three powerful, coequal branches of government.

In “New Jersey’s 1947 Constitution and the Creation of a Modern State Supreme Court,” the concluding chapter by John B. Wefing, we learn about the unique history of this court system, born in the constitution of 1947 and lauded as a model for efficient court administration by those who study courts and those who run them. In 1947, the year the judicial article of the constitution became effective, New Jersey moved from an antiquated complex of overlapping courts mired in jurisdictional disputes, possibly the worst system in the country, to a unified and streamlined judiciary administered by an independent chief justice acting in partnership with the other members of the state’s supreme court through the exercise of the court’s rule-making authority.

The new system was revolutionary when it was approved; it has remained independent and strong into the twenty-first century. And that independence and strength have provided the basis for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s preeminence among its peers over these past sixty-five years. During the period encompassed by the cases discussed in this book (from 1960 to 2011), the court was known for its careful and scholarly exploration of the issues before it and for its willingness to adapt traditional legal principles to reflect changing social attitudes and the complexities of modern life, including the enormous technological revolution that so altered the world the justices once knew. I have previously characterized the court’s approach in such cases, “[W]hen the law is not clear or the facts do not fit the legal paradigm or recent legislative enactments reflect changed attitudes or norms, then the court must mine deeply and creatively for the principles that sustain its work. That experience affects . . .

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