James H. Coleman, Jr., is an American lawyer, judge, and the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Born on May 4th, 1933, in Lawrenceville, Virginia, Coleman is the son of a poor southern sharecropper. While Coleman has since retired his position as an associate justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court, he is still recognized for his lifelong judicial career and adamant fight for racial equality, most recently receiving the New Jersey Law Journal‘s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016, the Best Lawyers in America’s Newark Best Lawyers Arbitration Lawyer of the Year award in 2015, and a nomination to the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
Coleman’s upbringing as the son of a black sharecropper in the early 20th century south has given him insight into the concept of racial inequality. During his childhood, Coleman was forced to attend various racially segregated public schools in Lawrenceville due to the continued enforcement of Jim Crow laws. Despite these setbacks, Coleman graduated from James S. Russell High School in Lawrenceville as the class Salutatorian, and in 1956, cum laude from Virginia State University. Coleman then left Virginia and continued his education in Washington, D.C.at Howard University and George Washington University. He graduated from George Washington University in 1959 with a degree in law. The following year, Coleman was admitted to the bar in New Jersey. Coleman served in the U.S. Army reserves until his discharge in 1962.
Coleman began his lifelong career in law in 1960, working as a private practice attorney until 1970 in offices in the cities of Roselle and Elizabeth, New Jersey. In 1960, Coleman also joined the New Jersey Department of Labor and Industry and in 1964 became a judge in the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Court. He kept this position until 1973, when he was appointed as judge of New Jersey’s Union County Court, a position he kept for five more years. From 1978 to 1980 Coleman served as the Judge of the Law Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court and then from 1981 to 1987 as Judge of the Appellate division of the Superior Court. In 1987 he was promoted to Presiding Judge of the New Jersey Appellate Court.
On October 3, 1994, New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman, a Republican, nominated Coleman as an Associate Justice to the New Jersey Supreme Court. This nomination was confirmed by the New Jersey State Senate on December 12, and Coleman was sworn in by Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz, and, five days later on December 17. Coleman became the first African American to serve on the New Jersey State Supreme Court. Coleman was nominated by Democratic Governor Donald DeFrancesco on November 26, 2001 for a second term, and this nomination was also confirmed by the state senate. Coleman retired from the State Supreme Court in 2003 at the age of 70. A portrait of Justice Coleman was placed on permanent display in the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2016, 13 years after his retirement.