Meet Justice Rachel Wainer Apter
On the afternoon of Wednesday, November 15, 2023, Tamra Katcher, Helene Herbert and I had the honor of meeting with Justice Rachel Wainer Apter at her Newark chambers. A youthful pretty woman came to the door with her hand out and a smile on her face and said “Hello, I’m Rachel” and we were at that moment, honored to meet the second youngest female New Jersey Supreme Court Justice, appointed at age 42 in 2022.
Justice Apter was friendly, happy to be in photographs and glad to tell us about her background and ascent to the bench. Her office was full of family pictures, and you could see she is as devoted a wife and mother as she is a jurist.
She explained to us that she grew up in Morris County in a non-attorney family and because after college she worked as a legislative assistant on anti-poverty issues in Washington DC, she realized she should go to law school and use her degree to continue anti-poverty policy work. But then two things happened: she found she loved legal analysis, and she developed a passion for civil rights law.
After law school, she obtained prestigious clerkships for three important judges. First, she clerked for Judge Rakoff, US District Court of Southern District of New York, then Judge Katzman of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and finally, and most importantly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the US Supreme Court. In the midst of these demanding and important jobs, she gave birth to two of her three children.
She was the mother of a 1 year old and a 3 year old while working for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and she describes it as a job where working at home was not an option. She worked very late a few nights a week and was home the other nights to put her children to bed.
After working for Justice Ginsburg, she and her family eventually moved back to New Jersey. At the time she was working at Orrick, Herrington, and Sutcliffe, where she joined the Supreme Court and Appellate Practice and became an appellate litigator. She stayed there for five years and managed to work an arrangement where she worked from home three days a week and came in the office two days a week, something unheard of in 2014, pre-COVID world. Yet she made that happen and was able to be with her children and practice law at the same time. Because she and her husband had friends in the Englewood area and because they are observant Jews, the family settled in Englewood. Englewood has been her happy hometown since she moved from Washington DC, and she is raising her children in Englewood. She is now the mother of a 10th grade girl, a middle school girl and a grammar schoolboy and describes the three of them as loving the Bergen County area and having a wonderful childhood in Englewood.
The Justice left Orrick after five years and worked as an appellate litigator at the National Legal Department of the ACLU. When Governor Murphy was elected governor, she was asked to lead his law and justice transition team. She had started at the ACLU two months earlier, but she said yes and spent several months working at the ACLU during the day and volunteering on the Governor’s transition team at night, all with young children.
After Attorney General Grewal was nominated, he asked Justice Apter to come to New Jersey full time to rethink how NJ as a State could enforce state level civil rights laws. She had only been at the ACLU for five months, but she said yes. She became an Assistant Attorney General and Counsel to the Attorney General. She litigated and argued on behalf of New Jersey on civil rights cases across the country. Several months later, she became the Director of this Division on Civil Rights of New Jersey. She spent four years overseeing a “fantastic team that continues to do wonderful work today.”
Justice Apter is happy to tell us lessons she learned from working for Justice Ginsburg. She says that her job as a clerk for Justice Ginsburg was by far the best job she ever had until her current position. While she clerked, she had a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old. She learned how to compartmentalize and make separate time for the children and for work. The second thing she learned from clerking for Justice Ginsburg was “don’t be afraid to ask,” and advocate for yourself. Ask if you can change your schedule to accommodate your family situation and quite often, they will say yes if you are doing the work. Next, be thoughtful and intentional. Understanding time is precious made her work harder. Lastly, she learned from watching Justice Ginsburg that it’s a marathon not a sprint and you don’t need to accomplish everything right now.
Thus, Justice Apter has worked incredibly hard to be where she is and at age 43 is continuing to work hard to achieve many young female lawyer’s dream of being married, mother of 3 children and a Supreme Court Justice all at the same time. We presented her with our crystal gavel from Women Lawyers in Bergen, thanked her for speaking to us and she promised she will speak at our next important function. Expect to see her at the 2024 Women Lawyers in Bergen Annual Dinner as our guest speaker and this time there will be no COVID in the way.