Leaving the bench Justice Garibaldi, first woman to serve on state’s highest court, set to step down

After 17 historic years as the first woman to ever serve on New Jersey’s highest court, lifelong Hudson County resident and State Supreme Court Justice Justice Garibaldi will officially retire Feb. 1. Garibaldi is still five years away from the mandatory retirement age of 70, but feels the time is right now.

Last week, Garibaldi, a Weehawken resident, sat in her chambers at the Brennan Court House, reflecting on her judicial career.

"There’s no real reason for my retiring at this time," Garibaldi said Wednesday. "I really just wanted to have more time for myself and to take care of my mother [who recently suffered a broken hip]. I have to retire at the first of a month, so February 1 was it."

Garibaldi sent a letter to Gov. Christie Whitman last month stating her intention to retire. In the letter, Garibaldi addressed the honor she felt in serving on the Supreme Court, stating that she had "mixed emotions" about her decision.

"I have had the unique opportunity to participate in important decisions that have affected the lives of the people of New Jersey," the letter said.

It was a gross understatement.

Garibaldi became a truly historic figure, the first woman to break the previously all-male gender barrier, setting a trend for the rest of time.

"When you’re the first, you’re the first forever," Garibaldi said. "I guess that will appear on my obituary. Seriously, I’m proud of that fact. I came on to an all-white male Supreme Court. Now, we have three women, one of whom is the chief justice [Deborah Poritz]. And there’s one African-American [James Coleman]. That’s one of the greatest changes I’ve seen."

Historic rulings

Garibaldi also has made some historic rulings while on the bench. She upheld the death sentence imposed upon Jesse Timmendequas, the man convicted of murdering seven-year-old Megan Kanka.

In 1990, Garibaldi ruled in Frank v. Ivy Club that Princeton University’s eating clubs’ rejection of female applicants violated the New Jersey law against discrimination.

And in 1986, in the case State v. Gilmore, Garibaldi ruled that the exercise of challenging all prospective black jurors during jury selection was improperly based on group bias, rather than specific bias, and violated a defendant’s constitutional right to an impartial jury.

Incredibly, Garibaldi had never had aspirations to ever serve as a judge.

"I was never interested in being a judge," Garibaldi said. "I loved the practice of law. I thought the law gave you the ability to be involved in a lot of different things."

After graduating from Columbia Law School, Garibaldi served as a primary tax attorney for the Internal Revenue Service.

"People think that working for the IRS only involves numbers," Garibaldi said. "But tax law gets you involved in every aspect of law. It got me involved in banking, real estate, family court. I was able to follow the political direction of what the politicians did with taxes. It really gave me a wide spectrum of understanding the law."

During that time, Garibaldi was approached to become a Hudson County Superior Court judge, but kept turning down the offers. However, she did accept one offer ¾ to serve as the acting municipal court judge in her native Weehawken for four years.

"I love Weehawken," Garibaldi said. "It’s a perfectly small town and seldom are there any major problems. It’s unique. Everyone gets along. It’s a lovely town. I was proud to serve Weehawken during that time."

Garibaldi also served Weehawken as the chairperson of the Board of Adjustment.

When then Gov. Thomas Kean approached Garibaldi and asked if she would serve on the state’s Supreme Court in 1983, she finally accepted.

"The state’s highest court and I was going to be the first woman," Garibaldi said. "How could I say no?"

Garibaldi said that she was nervous at first and wondered whether she would be accepted.

"But I really didn’t have any problems," Garibaldi said. "Everything was pretty casual. My colleagues were really nice."

Independence key

"I think one of the most important things I had to learn about being a judge was to be independent," Garibaldi said. "I couldn’t be afraid to make an opinion just because it was going to be unpopular. And I wasn’t anxious to make a decision that was popular."

Garibaldi was asked if the law had changed at all during her tenure on the bench.

"I don’t know if the law we applied changed, but the practice of law has changed," Garibaldi said. "There’s a lot more stress now in the law field. But there are also a lot more rights, especially women’s rights. There are a lot more causes of action available now that were not available 17 years ago. There are different trends now. But I don’t think the principles of law have changed."

And now, they’re all coming to an end.

"I really haven’t given much thought to it," Garibaldi said. "I’ve been busy wrapping up things here in my office. I haven’t focused on what I’m going to do. I’ve had a pretty good career. I hope it’s not over. I really have no definite plans. I’m just going to see what comes along."

Added Garibaldi, "I don’t think I want a regular job. This was a great job."

Garibaldi said that she was pleased with Gov. Whitman’s designee to replace her on the bench, attorney Jaynee LaVecchia.

"She’s an excellent lawyer," Garibaldi said. "She’s very well prepared, articulate and level-headed. I think she’s being designated as a trouble shooter and I think she will do very well. And she’s going to take my secretary, Marlene Fridel, who has been with me for 30 years and has done a wonderful job."

LaVecchia will be based in Jersey City temporarily, so Hudson County will not lose its representation in the Supreme Court just yet.

"I’m proud to be from Hudson County, and when people met me for the first time, they knew right away that I was from Hudson County," Garibaldi said. "It’s funny, people think because I’m from Hudson County that I’m a lifelong Democrat, but that’s not true [Garibaldi is a Republican]. But I just recently swore in [County Executive] Bob Janiszewski again. If you’re a Hudson County person, you support them."

Janiszewski was proud to support Garibaldi as well. "For more than 17 years, she has brought pride and distinction to the Supreme Court," he said last week. "The court will not be the same without her."

Few regrets

Garibaldi was asked if she had any regrets about her pending retirement.

"The only time I have regrets is when people come up to me and say, ‘Justice, we hate to see you leave.’ Probably, there’s going to be a day, when I’m sitting around, doing nothing and I’ll say, ‘Why did I do this?’ But there have been a lot of other justices who have retired and they definitely had a life after the bench."

Garibaldi was also asked if she felt a special sense of pride by being a groundbreaker.

"I think that there are so many opportunities now for women in all fields, not just the law," Garibaldi said. "When I was younger, young girls became wives and mothers. Now, they’re able to do different things. I’m surprised when people, especially women, see me doing different things, like a sales lady in the store, who recognize me and tell me how impressed they are."

Garibaldi added, "It’s just a sense I get. They’re saying that she can do it, so maybe I can do it. Or we all can do it. If I’m an inspiration to women, then that makes me very proud."