Justice Alan B. Handler (1931-2024)

Justice Alan B. Handler died on May 23. He was 92 years old.

Justice Handler served on the Supreme Court of New Jersey for 22 years, from 1977 through 1999. He wrote hundreds of majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions during that time, ranging all across the law. Even a partial listing of some of his most important opinions shows landmark or leading decisions in a wide array of subject matter areas. Those include, for example (selecting just one case on each topic, and just a handful of topics), administrative law, Metromedia, Inc. v. Director, Division of Taxation, 97 N.J. 313 (1984), discovery and privileges, Payton v. New Jersey Turnpike Authority, 148 N.J. 524 (1997), consumer protection, Lemelledo v. Beneficial Management, 150 N.J. 255 (1997), legal malpractice, Alan J. Cornblatt, P.A. v. Barow, 153 N.J. 218 (1998), expert testimony in mass tort or other complex cases, Rubanick v. Witco Chem. Corp., 125 N.J. 421 (1991), defamation, Decker v. Princeton Packet, Inc., 116 N.J. 418 (1989), estoppel, Carlsen v. Masters, Mates & Pilots Pension Fund, 80 N.J. 334 (1979), parole, Trantino v. New Jersey State Parole Bd., 154 N.J. 19 (1998), freedom of speech, State v. Schmid, 84 N.J. 535 (1980), matrimonial torts, Tevis v. Tevis, 79 N.J. 422 (1979), hostile work environment, Taylor v. Metzger, 152 N.J. 490 (1998), municipal land use, Pizzo Mantin Group v. Randolph Tp., 137 N.J. 216 (1994), and unjust enrichment, VRG Corp. v. GKN Realty Corp., 135 N.J. 539 (1994) [Disclosure: I was one of the counsel for one of the parties to that case]. This list could be multiplied many times.

In the criminal realm, Justice Handler authored many landmark decisions for the Court. One of those that got the most notoriety was State v. Michaels, 136 N.J. 299 (1994), which involved sensational allegations of child abuse by the defendant. Justice Handler also repeatedly filed vigorous dissents that were highly critical of the death penalty.

All this, and so much more, was the basis for a statement in Justice O’Hern’s book about the Court, titled “What Makes a Court Supreme.” There, Justice O’Hern stated that (on a Court filled with giant intellects) Justice Handler was known as “the magician,” for his particular ability to find a path to the best, often path-breaking, opinions for the Court in even the most complicated cases. That skill, however, did not begin with Justice Handler’s Supreme Court service. While sitting in the Law Division and the Appellate Division, he wrote oft-cited opinions such as Medivox Productions v. Hoffman-LaRoche, Inc., 107 N.J. Super. 47 (Law Div. 1969) (breach of contract), Braitman v. Overlook Terrace Corp., 132 N.J. Super. 51 (App. Div. 1974) (duty of residential landlord to tenants), aff’d, 68 N.J. 368 (1975), and M.T. v. J.T., 140 N.J. Super. 77 (App. Div. 1976) (recognizing rights of transsexual plaintiff to marry and to support from defendant).

Justice Handler graduated from Newark Academy, after which he attended Princeton University. There, he obtained both his undergraduate degree and a graduate degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public International Affairs. He went on to Harvard Law School, after which he joined the New Jersey Attorney General’s office. He was a Deputy Attorney General for three years and First Assistant Attorney General for another four years. Governor Hughes appointed him to the Superior Court in 1968, where Justice Handler served at the trial level until 1973, when he was elevated to the Appellate Division. He left that position in 1976 to act as counsel to Governor Byrne. The Governor then appointed Justice Handler to the Supreme Court in 1977.

Anyone who had contact with Justice Handler, or read his opinions, recognized his brilliance. He was a key part of a Court that, then as now, was widely recognized as one of the best state high courts in the country. His legacy lives on in his decisions, in the success of his many law clerks as practitioners and as judges themselves, and in so many other ways.