Vanderbilt, Arthur T.

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Vanderbilt, Arthur T.

Arthur T. Vanderbilt was chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and a nationally renowned champion of judicial reform in the 1950s. Though he never became a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Vanderbilt's philosophy and personal energy paved the way for the modernization of state judicial systems. He used the New Jersey courts as his laboratory for judicial change.

Vanderbilt was born in Newark, New Jersey, on July 7, 1888. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 1910, then attended Columbia University School of Law in New York City. Upon graduation in 1913, he began private practice in Newark. Vanderbilt was notable for the longevity of his service in education and public office. In 1914, he began teaching as an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law, a position he held for 29 years. In 1921, he was appointed county counsel for New Jersey's Essex County where he served for 26 years. In 1934, Vanderbilt became a trustee for Wesleyan University; he remained on the board until his death.

Shortly after his graduation from law school, Vanderbilt became active in the Republican Party as part of a group of "Clean-Government" reformers who sought change in the political apparatus that ran Essex County and New Jersey. The Clean Government movement strongly supported Frank Driscoll as the Republican candidate for governor. When Driscoll won the gubernatorial election in 1946, he kept his promise to Clean Government advocates to hold a constitutional convention and to seek judicial reform. A stroke prevented Vanderbilt from attending the 1947 constitutional convention, but he served as an advisor to the governor who followed through on many of the convention's recommendations. Chief among these was the replacement of New Jersey's outdated Court of Errors and Appeals with the New Jersey Supreme Court. In 1948, Governor Driscoll appointed Vanderbilt as chief justice of the new court.

Prior to the adoption of the 1947 Constitution, New Jersey's courts had functioned as separate units, each with its own rules, procedures, and case management system. As part of his duties as chief justice, Vanderbilt also functioned as the administrative head of all of the New Jersey courts. He immediately began the difficult process of creating a unified court system with standardized procedures and processes. One of the most egregious problems facing the new chief justice was the large number of cases that were backlogged on the dockets of the trial courts. Vanderbilt required the state's judges to increase their productivity by demanding that they submit weekly reports showing the number of cases and motions that had been resolved and listing those cases that were still not decided. Vanderbilt not only personally reviewed the reports, but had them published. While many judges resisted these changes, the case backlogs were eliminated by 1950 and New Jersey's courts were judged to be among the most efficient in the United States.

Besides facing battles inside the court system, Vanderbilt wrestled with the New Jersey Legislature over which body had control over judicial rule making. In a significant case, Win-berry v. Salisbury, 74 A.2d 406 (N.J. 1950), Vanderbilt wrote a majority opinion in which the court interpreted the phrase "subject to law" to mean that the court, not the legislature, had the final word on rules it promulgated regarding procedural matters. Despite opposition from one dissenting justice and from members of New Jersey's General Assembly, significant support from the press and members of the New Jersey bar helped Vanderbilt to prevail in the Winberry case and in other matters relating to judicial independence and court administration.

Vanderbilt gained a national reputation as a leading judicial reformer. In 1939, he helped to draft the statute that created the U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees the federal court system. In 1941, he was one of the drafters of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. In 1952, he helped to found the Institute for Judicial Administration at the New York University School of Law. Vanderbilt was a sought-after speaker and lecturer who received numerous awards and honorary degrees. He remained in the office of chief justice and continued to advocate for the improvement of judicial administration until his death on June 16, 1957.

Further readings

Gerhart, Eugene C. 1980. Arthur T. Vanderbilt: The Compleat Counsellor. Albany, N.Y.: Q Corporation.

Vanderbilt, Arthur T. 1976. The Challenge of Law Reform. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.

Vanderbilt, Arthur T., II. 1976. Changing Law: A Biography of Arthur T. Vanderbilt. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press.