As a youngster, Fabiana Pierre-Louis often spoke up for her three older siblings, skillfully pleading their cases like a defense lawyer when they got into trouble. Her parents jokingly predicted she would become a lawyer.
She exceeded their wildest dreams.
This month, Gov. Phil Murphy announced plans to nominate Pierre-Louis to the New Jersey Supreme Court. If approved, she would serve as the first Black female justice in the state’s 244-year history.
Pierre-Louis, 39, of Mount Laurel, has had a fast-paced legal career. She has a reputation as a groundbreaking lawyer and a former federal prosecutor who broke the color barrier to lead offices in Camden and Trenton.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among 23 states that have all-white state Supreme Court benches. Delaware’s first black Supreme Court jurist was seated in January.
Pierre-Louis embraces the history-making significance of her selection and wants to be a role model for minority children. She would be the third Black judge on the court, and the youngest.
“It’s important for young people and future generations to see people who look like them,” Pierre-Louis said in an interview. “For me, I just hope that this nomination is an inspiration to others.”
Her selection comes amid protests nationwide against systemic racism and calls for diversity. Murphy has said that the selection process began months before the protests but that there was no “better meeting of an individual and the times.”
The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Pierre-Louis credits her humble roots for her success and work ethic. The family of seven lived in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn when she was a child. Her grandmother lived with them and prepared Haitian meals daily.
Her father, Joseph, a taxi driver who owned his cab, worked extra hours to pay tuition for the children to attend parochial school. Her mother, Claire, worked as a hospital patient transport aide. They stressed the importance of education and all their children earned advanced degrees.
”I know how hard my parents worked,” Pierre-Louis said. “They made sacrifices in the hopes of forging a path for our futures.”
The family later moved to Irvington, in Essex County, where several family members lived amid a large Haitian population. Creole was her first language, which she is teaching to her sons, Robbie and Marc.
Pierre-Louis earned a bachelor’s degree at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. She wasn’t sure about a legal career until she participated in a pre-law fellowship and then “was completely sold.”
She graduated with high honors from Rutgers-Camden Law School, where she was known as a bright student who was passionate about the law, said her classmate and longtime friend Lloyd A. Freeman. He recruited her to serve as vice president of the Black Law Students Association, where he was president.
“I knew that she was brilliant. I wanted to work with her badly,” said Freeman, a partner at Archer & Greiner in Haddonfield.
If confirmed, Pierre-Louis would take a seat once held by her mentor, former Justice John E. Wallace Jr., who became embroiled in controversy when then-Gov. Chris Christie refused to renominate him for a tenured term in 2010. She clerked for Wallace in 2006 when he was the high court’s sole black jurist.
Wallace recalled his former clerk as a brilliant young attorney. The two maintain a close friendship and he joined her family at the announcement of her nomination.
”You knew that she would go far,” Wallace said.
Pierre-Louis began her career in 2007 as an associate at the Cherry Hill law firm Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads. She returned as a partner in 2019, handling white-collar crime, commercial litigation, and government investigations.
She previously spent nine years as an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey, working and overseeing cases including those involving public corruption, drug, and fraud crimes.
”She will be a fantastic judge,” said Stanley King, a Woodbury civil rights attorney.
If confirmed, Pierre-Louis could help shape the court for 30 years. She would replace Associate Justice Walter Timpone, who will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 in November.
A number of senators have publicly expressed support for Pierre-Louis. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) has not set a date for a confirmation hearing.
“I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that this could have happened,” she said. “I am certainly blessed.”