The Inspired CJG
How the RBG documentary moved CJ Griffin to build a first-of-its-kind public-interest center
Published in 2022 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine on March 17, 2022
When CJ Griffin first saw the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG, something clicked.
Griffin, who hails from a rural Kansas town with no stoplights, wasn’t looking to the law. She moved to New York to do social justice work, with nonprofits like the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. It wasn’t until she decided on law that she realized she’d better finish her bachelor’s.
In 2013, her first year at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, Griffin agreed to take a public records case and found herself before the New Jersey Supreme Court. She lost that one, and hundreds of billable hours along with it, but headline-making wins soon followed—like her first police transparency case, North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, which made dash camera footage of deadly force incidents public. Next came the appellate decision that non-New Jersey residents can request and obtain state records, which she won through a campaign of lawsuits convincing judges to reverse denials.
While she was building her open records practice, she also made a point of taking on amicus cases for the ACLU. The idea of expanding that work and starting a pro bono program at Pashman had been percolating the day she saw RBG.
Griffin was particularly inspired by the legal strategies Ginsburg borrowed from Thurgood Marshall, using litigation to win historic victories for women’s rights like he had for civil rights. “I felt very connected to it because it was the way I was viewing impact litigation,” Griffin says. “I stayed up all night after the documentary and wrote a business plan.” Her dream? Build an in-house public-interest entity.
A year later, the Justice Gary S. Stein Public Interest Center was born, so named for the state Supreme Court justice who joined the firm in 2002. Helmed by Griffin, the Stein Public Interest Center is dedicated to advancing social, racial and economic justice; protecting civil liberties and constitutional rights; and promoting an open and transparent government.
In October 2021 alone, the center had seven attorneys argue before the New Jersey Supreme Court.
“I believe there’s not any New Jersey firm appearing before the Supreme Court more than we are,” says Griffin. “It’s an honor to have clients that are trusting us to make these arguments and to play a role in so many decisions that are really going to make a difference and be very protective of constitutional rights, even above what is provided under the U.S. Constitution. I think we’re having a tremendous impact.”
That impact is best illustrated through landmark Supreme Court cases, but landmark dismissals work, too.
In the summer of 2020, while the country reeled from the murder of George Floyd, the New Jersey Supreme Court was set to review a suit Griffin filed on behalf of Libertarians for Transparent Government to obtain the name of a cop who was terminated for “racially offensive behavior.”
Then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal had long disagreed with Griffin’s position that the public was entitled to that information, but in June, had a change of heart. The AG’s office not only gave Griffin’s client the name and paid her client’s legal fees, but also issued new directives requiring all police agencies to annually disclose the names of officers who received major discipline.
“I don’t know that the directive would have happened but for this case of mine pending, because it really put public pressure on the attorney general,” Griffin says. “The oral argument would have been that September, when people were in the streets marching in Black Lives Matter protests, including the attorney general. The press is calling and saying, ‘Hey, you just filed a brief saying the public is not entitled to the name of this trooper?’”
The suit was dismissed, but a new one rose quickly after the police unions sued over the directive. Griffin then filed an amicus brief on behalf of the National Coalition of Latino Officers and Law Enforcement Action Partnership, arguing that transparency benefits the police and especially minority officers. Both the Appellate Division and Supreme Court upheld the directive; in 2021, the first annual Major Discipline Reporting findings were published.
In another change-making New Jersey Supreme Court decision in 2021, this time involving bias in jury selection, Griffin represented The Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey.
At issue was the prosecution’s move in a criminal case to run a secret background check on a prospective juror, who was Black, after the judge refused to remove him for cause.
“We argued the state shouldn’t be allowed to do a criminal background check unless they obtain some kind of lead from the court—and there would be such limited circumstances we can’t even identify what that would be—but they can’t just do it on their own.”
The court agreed, reversing the defendant’s murder conviction due to lack of a fair trial. While Griffin thinks it’s “a little kind” to call what the prosecution did implicit rather than explicit bias, the unanimous decision held that even implicit bias could hinder a defendant’s rights, and called for a two-day Judicial Conference on Jury Selection focused on implicit bias.
“It’s a huge decision in the sense that the Batson test, which looks at jury selection and use of peremptory challenges in a discriminatory manner, focuses so much on explicit bias,” she says. “Very rarely is that type of discrimination explicit.”
Griffin also helped roll back the police’s power to stop motorists without just cause in State v. Roman-Rosado, in which a defendant stopped on a license plate violation was subsequently convicted of a crime based on evidence found in a vehicle search. The violation? A tiny portion of the words “Garden State” on his plate was covered.
“The trial court found the plate was not fully obstructed, but the way the statute was written, if any part of the license plate is covered, then the stop is valid—even though the officer testified he was looking for a reason to pull the car over,” Griffin says.
She argued on behalf of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, presenting data showing significant racial disparities in who is pulled over on plate-frame violations, noting that the statute as applied meant the police could essentially pull over anyone at any time, since most cars in New Jersey have a frame covering a small portion of the plate.
“The court refused to apply the statute in that way because it would give police far too much discretion to stop anyone if they were looking for a reason to, which would often be racially discriminatory,” Griffin says. Now, the only way police can continue to stop drivers for a plate-frame violation is if the entire words “Garden State” or “New Jersey” are covered—a holding more protective than its federal law counterpart, established in Heien v. North Carolina. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that if a law enforcement officer’s misinterpretation of law is “reasonable,” then a stop, and any subsequent evidence seized, is valid.
“There’s been tons of legal debate as to how bad Heien is, how ambiguous ‘reasonable’ is,” Griffin says. “New Jersey is an ideal place to litigate because our Supreme Court is often more protective, so even if there is bad federal precedent, we can still win here.”
Reflecting on the center’s first two years, Griffin says it’s been especially gratifying to share her enthusiasm with colleagues.
“It’s wonderful to see it come to fruition, and it’s because so many people are coming together to volunteer their pro bono hours,” she says. “It’s not always true you encounter lawyers that love being lawyers or who love the law, but this firm is full of people who find this super rewarding, challenging, exciting and valuable.”