Richard J. Hughes
Politician, judge, attorney
Born: August 10, 1909, in Florence Township, New Jersey
Died: December 7, 1992, in Boca Raton, Florida
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2022: Public Service
The only person to serve New Jersey as both governor and chief justice, Richard J. Hughes had a profound impact on funding for the state’s educational system and on the national right-to-die debate.
The son of a one-time state civil service commissioner, Hughes attended St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia and New Jersey Law School, now part of Rutgers University. He began to practice law and, like his father, became active in local Democratic politics. In 1939, he became a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Jersey, where, according to a Rutgers biography, he prosecuted mail fraud, illegal tax withholding, and wartime subversion by members of the German-American Vocational League and similar groups.
Hughes’s judicial career continued on the Mercer County Court and the state Superior Court. Elevated to the Appellate Division, Hughes headed a study that helped reform the state’s juvenile and domestic-relations courts. Hughes eventually returned to private practice, but in 1961 the state Democratic Party nominated him to run for governor. He earned an upset victory and took office with a promise to expand state operations to accommodate New Jersey’s rapidly growing population.
One of Hughes’s initial priorities was to pass legislation to create the state’s first income tax. When voters rejected a $750 million bond issue, state Democrats put Hughes’s tax initiative on hold. After his reelection in 1965, Hughes again sought an income tax, but the bill was defeated in the state Senate. Instead, Hughes agreed to a bill that created the state’s first sales tax.
Among his other achievements as governor, Hughes brought the Democratic National Convention to New Jersey for the first time (1964 in Atlantic City); reorganized state government, creating several new departments, including the Department of Consumer Affairs; established a commission to plan for the development of the Hackensack Meadowlands; established the county community college system; and approved two new state colleges.
Leaving the governorship after two terms, Hughes was named the state’s Chief Justice. During his tenure, the court made history in the case of medical patient Karen Ann Quinlan, unanimously ruling that an individual or their guardian had the right to refuse medical treatment designed to prolong life in terminal cases. As explained by The New York Times, the decision affirmed an individual’s right to “control the extent of medical treatment in the face of expanding medical technology.”
The Hughes-led court also made history when it stepped into the ongoing taxation controversy and ordered the closing of New Jersey’s public schools in June 1976 until a new financing plan was implemented. That action led to the enactment of Hughes’s long-sought state income tax.
Hughes left the bench in 1979 after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 and returned to private practice. In 1982, the state’s new judicial facility in Trenton was dedicated in his honor as the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex.