Departing NJ Supreme Court Justice Credits Son with Autism for Success

In a poignant speech bidding farewell to the New Jersey State Supreme Court after a seven-year term, Justice Helen Hoens credited her son with autism for teaching her everything she needed to know to serve on the Supreme Court and for making her the person she is today.

In Hoens' first extended remarks since Gov. Chris Christie announced in August he would not nominate her for lifetime tenure, she said earlier this week that anyone can learn the ins and outs of New Jersey law, but her essence as a judge came from rearing her only child, Charlie, who is now 29. She urged people to remember that every time they encounter someone like her son.

"Every important thing I ever became, all of the qualities like patience and compassion and strength and courage, all of it was forged on the anvil of autism," Hoens, 59, said from the bench on her last day of hearing oral arguments. "The truth of it is, I have never left the margins of society. I have never left the people like my son, the people in the shadows, the folks that the important people don’t see or just don’t want to see."

In a break with tradition,Christie declined to renew Hoens' appointment after her initial seven-year term, saying the Democrats who control the state Senate were planning to block her nomination. But Democratic leaders said Christie had jumped the gun and that Hoens might have made it through.

"Someday each and every one of you will come across someone like my son," Hoens said. "When that day comes, you’re going to be just like me, you’re going to want to get by, you’ll want to do what everyone wants to do: you want to push these people aside, look the other way, get on with your busy, important life or your movie or your fast food or your groceries.

"When that day comes," she concluded to a standing ovation from the lawyers, family members and retired justices in the audience, "stop, stop, take a deep breath, reach down deep, deep into the reservoirs of love and patience and kindness and compassion that reside deep in every one of our souls ... and tell yourself this: Somebody just like that taught me everything I needed to know to be a justice of the Supreme Court of the state of New Jersey. Think on that. Remember that. My work here is done."

In an editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger on Thursday, the newspaper’s editorial board praised Hoens for “teaching us all something about graceful exits.”

“Hoens’ grace was all the more admirable because it came with Gov. Chris Christie’s hand on her back — shoving her out the courtroom door long before her judicial career should have ended,” the editorial board wrote. “To her credit, Hoens leaves without taking a parting shot. She noted the ‘roiling waters of politics that swamped the little boat of my judicial career,’ but resisted the urge for more critical final words. As the drive-by victim in a political game, some bitterness might be forgiven. Instead, she deserves respect for her restraint, and what she chose not to say.”

Hoens began her career in private practice, and was appointed to the Superior Court in 1994 by Gov. Christie Whitman and to the Supreme Court in 2006 by Gov. Jon Corzine. Before that, she served as general counsel to the Autism Society of America on a pro-bono basis.

Read more from the Star-Ledger at NJ.com here and read the editorial here.