By Sam Bojarski
Growing up, Fabiana Pierre-Louis said her parents would jokingly tell her she should become an “avoka” ‒ the Creole word for lawyer.
The thought remained in her mind until college.
“I would often come to my siblings’ defense when they got in trouble, so they would joke around and say that,” said Pierre-Louis, who spent her childhood days in Brooklyn and Irvington, New Jersey.
It might be safe to say Pierre-Louis chose the right career. After spending years as an attorney in public and private practice, Pierre-Louis was nominated by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this month to serve on the state Supreme Court. Once confirmed, Pierre-Louis will become the first black woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice in the state’s history.
“Fabiana is a star. She not only is a skilled lawyer and advocate possessed with great oral and written advocacy skills, she is widely respected and loved by everyone she works with, she lights up the room with her enthusiasm, compassion and friendly demeanor,” said Paul Zoubek, who first worked with Pierre-Louis in 2007 and serves as a partner at her current firm, Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads.
Pierre-Louis, the daughter of Haitian immigrants who first settled in the U.S. about 50 years ago, has never forgotten her humble roots. Like numerous other Haitian immigrants who left the country to escape political instability and economic hardship, Pierre-Louis’s parents sought a better life for themselves and their children.
“Having parents who sacrificed so much for me, for our family, there was really no question growing up whether I was going to work hard and succeed in everything I did, because I knew that the only reason why I’ve had the opportunities that I had is because they made so many sacrifices,” said the 39-year-old Pierre-Louis, in an interview with the Haitian Times.
“So for me, I was always pushing so hard to do the best I could at every step of my life, because they gave up everything they had, and came to a new country where they didn’t speak the language and barely knew anyone, in order to give me these opportunities,” she added.
From a young age, Pierre-Louis knew that education was the ticket to advancement and a better life. Her parents, a New York City cabdriver and a patient transport aide at St. Vincent’s Hospital, respectively, emphasized the importance of education constantly.
Pierre-Louis recalled that “it wasn’t a question of whether we were going to go to college and attain advanced degrees, because that was something that was so important to my parents and my family.”
From her early-childhood days in Brooklyn, all the way up through her career as an attorney, Pierre-Louis has maintained close ties to the Haitian community.
“I have fond memories of being surrounded by a lot of friends and family members all speaking Creole, enjoying Haitian cuisine all the time, so that certainly made me who I am today,” she said.
When the family of seven moved from Brooklyn to Irvington, they joined extended family in the area and became part of one of the largest Haitian communities in New Jersey. During the 1980s, while Pierre-Louis was growing up, the town had a thriving Haitian Flag Day celebration, a tradition that has continued through the years.
While attending Rutgers University ‒ where she earned her bachelor’s and Juris Doctor degrees ‒ Pierre-Louis was an active member of the school’s Haitian Association. It was there, while completing her undergraduate studies, that she decided she wanted to be a lawyer.
Attending the Summer Institute for Pre-Legal Studies at Seton Hall University gave Pierre-Louis the chance to read case law and make legal arguments. “That’s when I really fell in love with the law and knew that I wanted to go to law school and become a lawyer,” she said of her experience there.
Pierre-Louis went on to have a distinguished career in the law. Following her graduation from law school at Rutgers, she clerked for the Honorable John E. Wallace Jr., the most recent African-American to serve on the New Jersey Supreme Court. Wallace is now retired.
After spending time as an associate in the Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads law firm’s white collar and government investigations practice group, she served nine years in the U.S. District Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, as an assistant attorney and attorney-in-charge of the Camden Branch Office. Pierre-Louis was the first woman of color to hold the position.
Last year, she returned to Montgomery McCracken as a partner, where she focuses on white collar crime, commercial litigation and government investigations.
During her time as a lawyer, she helped found the Haitian American Lawyers Association of New Jersey, bringing together Haitian attorneys throughout the state.
Zoebuck said he has no doubt that Pierre-Louis will succeed on the Supreme Court.
“Fabiana treats everyone with respect and is well liked by everyone she encounters – judges, lawyers, court personnel, and administrative staff. She is friendly, considerate, and compassionate. She will bring those important qualities to the Court. I am confident that over time she will be one of the most respected members of the Court ‒ perhaps Chief Justice someday,” he told the Haitian Times, in an email.
Numerous references who knew Pierre-Louis from her time in public and private practice recommended her for the Supreme Court job prior to her nomination.
“I’ve been very fortunate to work with wonderful people throughout my career, and I’m grateful to all of them who have spoken well on my behalf,” Pierre-Louis told the Haitan Times.
Earlier this month, Gov. Murphy released a statement on his nomination of Pierre-Louis.
“A core tenet of my Administration is a commitment to an independent, fair-minded judiciary that reflects the immense diversity of our great state. As a first-generation American, Fabiana brings both a sharp legal acumen and the perspective of her own past that will greatly benefit the proceedings of our state’s highest court,” the governor’s statement read.
“In addition to her esteemed legal career, Fabiana’s humility, empathy, and character are all traits that make her well-suited to become the first Black woman and the next Associate Justice to serve on New Jersey’s Supreme Court.”
The governor also noted that he did not choose Pierre-Louis because of the current moment the country is in. Since late May, cities throughout the nation have erupted in protest over the death of George Floyd, and protesters have made widespread calls for racial justice and police accountability.
Given the challenges that have recently come to the forefront of society, “the questions which will undoubtedly rise to reach our Supreme Court – core issues of socioeconomic equality and equity – there is no better meeting of an individual and the times,” Murphy also stated.
In this current historical moment, Pierre-Louis said she hopes to be an inspiration to others.
“I know how important it is for young people to see somebody that looks like them or comes from a similar background as them in positions of leadership,” she said. “So I just hope in this moment that I can be an inspiration to young people and the Haitian community.”
The New Jersey State Bar Association must vet Gov. Murphy’s Supreme Court pick, before it goes before the 40-member state Senate. If confirmed, Pierre-Louis would replace Justice Walter Timpone, who is retiring later this year. She could serve for as long as three decades.
Pierre-Louis said she wants other Haitian-American women to know that anything is possible ‒ even a position on the state’s highest court ‒ if they are willing to put in the effort.
“It doesn’t matter where you started, it’s where you end up, and that’s all determined by your ability to work hard and get your education,” said Pierre-Louis.
“My parents weren’t lawyers, they weren’t doctors, and here I am nevertheless, and I think that’s wonderful,” she also said.