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The New Jersey State Bar Foundation is proud to bestow the 2023 Medal of Honor, the Foundation’s most prestigious award, to retired New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Barry T. Albin.

Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles on the NJSBF 2023 Medal of Honor recipients. An interview with the other recipient, Lawrence S. Lustberg, will be featured in an upcoming edition of The Bar Report.

Justice Albin left a lasting impact on the state’s legal landscape, improving the lives of New Jersey residents, businesses and organizations with his commitment to the fair administration of justice. He remains a strong voice for the independence of the Judiciary, speaking publicly and openly about the importance of the sanctity of the Supreme Court.

Along with co-Medal of Honor winner Lawrence S. Lustberg, the retired justice will be honored during an awards ceremony at the Park Chateau in East Brunswick on Sept. 26.  More information at moh.njsbf.org.

“Justice Albin and Larry Lustberg are shining examples of what the Medal of Honor stands for. The Medal of Honor recognizes professional excellence, leadership, commitment, and service to the public and legal community. This year’s awardees exemplify all of these qualities,” said Charles Stoia, president of the NJSBF. “We congratulate them and applaud their outstanding contributions to the legal profession and to the advancement and improvement of the justice system in New Jersey.”

Justice Albin spoke recently about his life, career and receiving the Medal of Honor.

Serving as a Supreme Court justice for 20 years allowed you to leave an impactful mark on the practice of law in New Jersey. When did you develop an interest in the law and why did you gravitate to that field?

That interest probably formed at a very early age, although it never materialized in my head until I was in high school. I was very much impressed and affected by the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Even at the age of 8, I remember rooting for him to win the presidential election. His campaign, and later his presidency, was an inspiration for young people to go into public service. I knew I wanted my life to be impactful so, years later, I decided that a career in law would be the best path to use whatever talents I had for the greater public good.  When I started college, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in law and make some small difference within the world I might operate.

Prior to joining the Supreme Court, you served in the state Attorney General’s Office and as an assistant prosecutor in Passaic and Middlesex counties, before going into private practice as a criminal defense attorney. Initially, what attracted you to public service?

At the end of my second year of law school, I did an internship at the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. At first I worked in the appellate section, but then I was asked to assist the chief of the homicide unit in a high-profile murder case. I did legal research and saw that case to its conclusion. It was a formative experience, because in my research, I came to the conclusion that there was probably insufficient evidence to prosecute the case, and I remember expressing that concern to the chief of homicide. In the end, the defendant was ultimately acquitted. I decided then that should I ever become a prosecutor, I would never proceed with a case where I had my own personal doubts about a person’s guilt. Granted, I didn’t know if he was innocent or guilty. It was my conclusion from looking at the evidence that you couldn’t prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me through my entire career as a lawyer. Our system of justice is fragile. Even in the best of circumstances, there will be mistakes because it is a human system. But we must do our best to minimize mistakes by not pressing those cases that are on the edge. From my experience that summer, I decided that I wanted to start my career in the Attorney General or prosecutor’s office.

How did your career in public and private practice prepare you for the Supreme Court?

Each of us is a product of our experiences. My career allowed me to see the criminal and civil justice system in all its varied aspects – from prosecuting cases to sitting with someone’s life and liberty in my hands as a defense attorney. I also handled many cases in the municipal courts, so I was experienced in what happens in the court that most greatly interfaces with the public.

Given my wide range of experience, many of the cases that came before the Court were not alien to me. I had some experience with them either in private practice or public service. That’s not to say that there weren’t many cases out of my wheelhouse. When you’re on the Supreme Court, you have to become a generalist. That requires a lot of hard work, patience, dedication and research, and much help from your law clerks. The learning curve might not have been as steep for me as it was for others, because a good portion of the Court’s docket are criminal cases. I was an expert in criminal law from my years as a prosecutor and defense attorney. That put me in good stead with much of the docket.

Your first years on the Court are probably the most difficult because you’re being exposed to new areas. But that is true from the first day on the Court to the last. There are unique cases that come before you with which you have no prior experience. It is incumbent on you to learn that area, so you become at least as familiar with it, and hopefully more familiar than the people advocating before you.

You were remarkably prolific in your tenure as a justice, authoring 400 opinions and 230 majority opinions. Talk about the most consequential cases you ruled on and what makes an effective Supreme Court justice.

It’s difficult because there are so many consequential cases. And in substance, every case is consequential to the litigants and will likely have an impact on future cases and affect thousands of fellow citizens. One case that comes to mind is Lewis v. Harris, a case that dealt with whether same-sex couples could enjoy the same rights that heterosexual couples have under the law. That was basically the stepping stone to our recognition of marriage equality in Garden State Equality v. Dow. I’m proud of the role I and other members of the Court played in advancing the rights of the LGBTQ community.

At the end of my career, there was a case called Acoli v. N.J. State Parole Bd. It dealt with a defendant who had committed a heinous offense – the killing of a police officer 50 years earlier. He had satisfied all the requirements for his release, but the parole board obstructed the law’s command. Our ruling allowed for his parole. The question for the Court was really whether it would remain a stalwart defender of the law, however unpopular our decision might be. The law protects everyone, even those who commit the worst crimes. In my mind, that case revealed that we had the fortitude to stand for the rule of law.

A good justice is open to the ideas of others, is dedicated to the craft and has a high work ethic. There’s nothing in life or any career in which a person can excel without hard work. Collegiality with other members of the Court is also important, along with the understanding that you may not have the market on the truth and that everyone is capable of error.

You were known for balancing wit with levity in your opinions and approach as a justice. Why was it important to bring those traits to the job?

I don’t think I planned in advance to bring my wit and humor to the Court. I’d like to think that was an extension of my personality. When I wrote an opinion, I wanted it to be accessible not merely to other judges or lawyers, but to everyday people. I made an effort to make the language of my opinions clear and understandable to our judges, lawyers and the public as well. Our opinions should be clear to people who enforce or apply them, including our trial judges and members of the bar. It’s important that they understand the rules of the game. Our opinions also have an educational feature to the public. People should be able to understand why we have decided a case in a particular way. If the language is too abstruse, and too far beyond the understanding of people, then we’re not achieving our purpose.

Many people only know you as a Supreme Court justice. Talk about your life and interests outside of the law. 

I love reading – history, biographies, science. It helps expand my knowledge of other fields. One of the last things I do before the end of the day is read a book. I’ve read the classics like “War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina” and “David Copperfield.” I have read all of Robert Caro’s books, including “The Power Broker” and the volumes on Lyndon B. Johnson. I also enjoy reading about American history, the Revolutionary and Civil wars and the 20th century.

In my spare time, I decided to take up piano. When I have a moment I like to sit down at the keyboard, relax and play a tune. I don’t want anyone to think I’m some great pianist, but I like playing the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, Simon and Garfunkel and other traditional songs. Jazz is not part of my repertoire. I certainly don’t have the talent to go that far.

I’m also sort of a connoisseur of the Broadway shows. Every month, at least before the pandemic, I tried to get out to see a show. I like musicals and non-musicals alike. The last show I saw was “LEOPOLDSTADT,”, which is Tom Stoppard’s latest play about an Austrian-Jewish family and its travails with assimilation. The next play I’m seeing is “Camelot” at the Lincoln Center. That should show you the diversity of my interests in plays.

At a recent panel discussion in Atlantic City, you talked about judicial vacancies in the state and your frustrations over how many judge seats remain vacant. As a former justice, do you feel more liberated to speak on such issues? Can you also discuss how the current vacancy rates are affecting the justice system?

I do feel a bit more liberated now. As a member of the Court, you must keep your private views to yourself, because it’s really important that the public know you are impartial and that you’re not bringing predispositions onto the Court. With respect to judicial vacancies, my opinions on that are basically a no-brainer. We know that high judicial vacancy rates are going to adversely affect our criminal and civil justice systems. When the chief justice of the Supreme Court is compelled to suspend civil and matrimonial trials in six counties, that should be an indication that we’ve reached a crisis level. Therefore, it is imperative for the political branches of government to fulfill their own constitutional obligations – to nominate and approve appropriate and qualified people for the Superior Court. There’s no reason why, year after year, there should be vacancy rates in excess of 50.

What does receiving the Foundation’s Medal of Honor mean to you? And how do you think the Foundation makes a difference not just for attorneys but the residents of New Jersey?

It’s incredible to be placed on a list with so many luminaries of the bar who have received the award. Having my name mentioned in that crowd is obviously gratifying. But I also take it as motivation to make continued contributions to the bar and the legal profession. I don’t want to sit pat on whatever I may have accomplished. I’m hoping to continue to practice and make a difference in the sphere in which I work.

As for the Foundation, it fulfills an important educational role, educating the public and the bar about issues related to bias, conflict resolution and many aspects of the law that the public is not familiar with. That educational mission is necessary within our legal community. We’re very fortunate to have the Foundation speak to students and teacher groups, conduct mock trials and increase knowledge of how our system of justice works. That is imperative in a democracy. People should know that there are three branches of government and the role each one plays in furthering the goals of our republic.

For more information and tickets to the Foundation’s Medal of Honor Awards September 26 Celebration, please visit moh.njsbf.org.

Originally published July 3, 2023
Bar Report of the New Jersey State Bar Association
Read HERE.