Robert Wilentz

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Robert Nathan Wilentz (February 17, 1927 – July 23, 1996) was Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court from 1979 to 1996, making him the longest-serving Chief Justice since the Supreme Court became New Jersey's highest court in 1948.


Wilentz's father, David T. Wilentz, was Attorney General of New Jersey in 1935, when he prosecuted Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnap and murder of the son of Charles Lindbergh, the aviator. The elder Wilentz also founded the New Jersey law firm of Wilentz, Goldman and Spitzer.

Robert Wilentz was raised in Perth Amboy, New Jersey and was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Perth Amboy High School.[1] He graduated from Harvard University and received his law degree from Columbia Law School. He married Jacqueline Malino (1928 – March 29, 1989) in 1949 and they had three children, James Robert, Amy and Thomas.[2] He was elected to the New Jersey General Assembly in 1965 and 1967, but chose not to seek a third term. He also practiced law with the firm founded by his father.

Wilentz was appointed Chief Justice by Democratic Governor Brendan Byrne in 1979. He was reappointed in 1986 by Republican Governor Thomas Kean, but there was a confirmation battle in the New Jersey Senate. After a contentious debate that involved charges of judicial activism on the part of Wilentz and his court, the chief justice was confirmed by a vote of 21 to 19.

Wilentz retired July 1, 1996, stating that he could no longer carry out his duties due to advanced cancer. He died several weeks later, on July 23, 1996. He would have reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in February 1997.[1]

Notable opinions[edit]

One of Robert Wilentz's most famous opinions was in the matter of Baby M, which invalidated a surrogate motherhood contract.

Another of the notable judgements by Wilentz[3] was in State v. Kelly, 91 N.J. 178 (1984), a Supreme Court of New Jersey case where the defendant, Gladys Kelly, was on trial for the murder of her husband, Ernest Kelly with a pair of scissors. The Supreme Court remanded the case for further trial after finding that expert testimony regarding the defence's submission, that Kelly suffered from battered woman syndrome, was incorrectly excluded since battered woman syndrome was a proper subject for expert evidence.[4][5][6][7]

The second Mount Laurel opinion, in 1983, was also important. The earlier Mount Laurel decision (1975) established a basic principle: that municipalities had to provide low- and moderate-income housing for residents. But finding that towns had done little or nothing since the earlier decision to carry out the intent of the court’s will, Chief Justice Wilentz wrote Mount Laurel II. This landmark decision instructed the lower courts to come up with firm, quantifiable targets for every municipality in the state. Mount Laurel II also declared that if a town or village did not have a realistic, implementable plan to meet its fair share, the courts could override local governments and grant approvals or what it called a "builder’s remedy" or incentive to those developers who proposed to incorporate a "substantial number" of affordable housing units into their projects. In a historic, and memorable, footnote, the court suggested that 20 percent affordable housing was a "reasonable minimum" for a municipality.[8]


  1. ^ a b Stout, David. "Robert Wilentz, 69, New Jersey Chief Justice, Dies; Court Aided Women and the Poor", The New York Times, July 24, 1996. Accessed January 16, 2018. "His energy, debating skill and intellect were no surprise to those who knew that he had been valedictorian at Perth Amboy High School, and that at Columbia Law School he was a Harlan Fiske Scholar and won the Robert Noxon Toppan Prize in Constitutional Law studies. Robert Wilentz was born on Feb. 17, 1927, the son of David T. and Lena Wilentz. He spent his boyhood in Perth Amboy."
  2. ^ "'Restless Seeker for Justice': Robert Nathan Wilentz". The New York Times, January 22, 1983. Accessed March 21, 2008.
  3. ^ "New Jersey's Chief Justices 1948--: Selected References"
  4. ^ Full text here "STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent v. Gladys KELLY, Defendant-Appellant", West Virginia State Web Portal
  5. ^ "Battered-Person Syndrome - Evidentiary Use in Criminal Trials: A Resource for Researchers", Georgia State University College of Law, 2002
  6. ^ "Effective Assistance Of Counsel For Battered Women Defendants: A Normative Construct", Sarah M. Buel, Harvard Law School
  7. ^ "The Validity and Use of Evidence Concerning Battering and Its Effects in Criminal Trials", National Criminal Justice Reference Service, US Department of Justice
  8. ^ The Betrayal of Mount Laurel
Legal offices
Preceded by
Richard J. Hughes
Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court
Succeeded by
Deborah T. Poritz