A key New Jersey Senate panel on Monday unanimously approved Gov. Phil Murphy’s nominee for the state Supreme Court, moving a step closer to confirming the Garden State’s first Black female justice.

After a hearing in Trenton, the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed the nomination of Cherry Hill lawyer Fabiana Pierre-Louis. State Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari (D., Union), chairman of the 11-member committee, said she would bring a unique perspective to the high court.

”You’ve come to this day more than ready for this position,” Scutari told her after the vote, which was met with applause. Pierre-Louis attended the hearing with her husband, two children, and extended family.

Said Sen. Nellie Pou (D., Passaic), chairwoman of the New Jersey Latino Caucus: “This is a noteworthy, historic moment in our time.” If approved, Pierre-Louis would serve as the first Black female justice in the state’s 244-year history. She would be the third Black judge to join the court, and the youngest.

Pierre-Louis, 39, is a partner with the law firm Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads. She served nine years as an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey.

In this file photo, Fabiana Pierre-Louis smiles alongside her two sons during a news conference where she was nominated to the New Jersey Supreme Court in June.
AP
In this file photo, Fabiana Pierre-Louis smiles alongside her two sons during a news conference where she was nominated to the New Jersey Supreme Court in June.

She faced a round of tough questions from Sen. Michael Doherty (R., Warren) and Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R., Bergen) when she refused to answer queries about issues that could land before the court. Doherty has challenged whether Murphy has the authority to change the state’s general election in November by executive order.

Before voting, Doherty said Pierre-Louis was qualified and “up to the role” as a jurist.

Cardinale grilled Pierre-Louis about the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the 1983 Mount Laurel fair housing case. In a series of decisions, the court ruled exclusionary zoning practices unconstitutional and required municipalities to adopt affordable housing plans.

Her nomination now heads to the full Senate for a confirmation hearing on Thursday. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) was present for Monday’s vote and lawmakers predicted Pierre-Louis would win easy confirmation.

Pierre-Louis would be the first Black jurist on the court since 2010 when former Republican Gov. Chris Christie refused to renominate Justice John Wallace to a second term. Pierre-Louis clerked for Wallace, who has been her mentor.

“This nomination is truly a nomination of a lifetime for me,” she told the lawmakers.

She would take the seat on the seven-member high court being vacated by Justice Walter Timpone, who will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 in November. Timpone was appointed by Christie in 2016, ending a years-long standoff with the Democratic-controlled Senate over the court’s ideological makeup.

In opening remarks to the committee, Pierre-Louis, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, cited her humble beginnings and credited her parents for her work ethic. She spent her early childhood “living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with seven family members.” English was not her first language.

”They are two of the strongest, selfless and hardworking people I know, and they are the reason I am sitting here today,” she said.

The family moved to Irvington, N.J., and Pierre-Louis went on to receive her bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in New Brunswick and her law degree from the Rutgers-Camden Law School, graduating with high honors.

Pierre-Louis began her career in 2007 as an associate at Montgomery McCracken. She returned as a partner in 2019, handling white-collar crime, commercial litigation, and government investigations.