Richard J. Hughes; Justice Wrote Decision in Quinlan Case


Richard J. Hughes, the distinguished New Jersey governor and jurist best known as the author of the controversial opinion that gave the parents of Karen Ann Quinlan the right to let her die, died Monday in Florida.

The former two-term governor and chief justice of New Jersey’s Supreme Court was 83 when he died at his vacation home in Boca Raton.

He suffered a stroke several weeks ago and died of congestive heart failure, according to a statement released by one of his stepchildren, W. Michael Murphy Jr., the Morris County, N.J., prosecutor.

“He died the way he lived. He was determined and distinguished and caring more for others than himself,” said son Brian M. Hughes, noting that his father had recently checked to make sure his organ donor card was in order.


Until the Quinlan decision on April 6, 1976, Hughes was best known as the popular Democrat who governed New Jersey from 1962 to 1970. During his tenure, he arranged the 1967 summit between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin at Glassboro State College.

Also as governor, he pushed through tough environmental laws and gun control legislation and created a Department of Community Affairs to deal with urban problems.

As chief justice from 1973 to 1979, Hughes presided over a court that forced the state to require every municipality to create housing designed for low- and middle-income residents. The court, citing inequities between rich and poor school districts, ordered New Jersey schools closed in 1976. The order forced lawmakers to adopt an income tax to fund schools.

Hughes rendered the 7-0 state Supreme Court ruling that appointed Joseph Quinlan legal guardian of his daughter, then 22. Quinlan could let his daughter--who fell into a coma after consuming alcohol with barbiturates--die if he could find competent medical authorities who agreed with his position that there was no reasonable possibility of her recovery.


“No compelling interest of the state could compel Karen to endure the unendurable, only to vegetate a few measurable months,” Hughes wrote.

Doctors, citing ethical and legal considerations, had resisted Joseph and Julia Quinlan, who wanted to turn off their daughter’s life-support systems. Although her respirator and other life-support methods were turned off, she continued to receive intravenous feedings and lived until June, 1985.

The Supreme Court ruling overturned a finding by a lower court judge that the Quinlans were too emotionally involved in the case to make life-and-death decisions.

The Hughes court said that if the Quinlans, both Roman Catholics, chose to let their daughter die, “this decision should be accepted by a society the overwhelming majority of whose members would, we think, in similar circumstances exercise such a choice in the same way for themselves or for those closest to them.”


The Quinlan decision fueled a national debate on the fate of the terminally ill and led indirectly to “living will” programs. With a living will, a person makes known in advance the type of life-support measures, if any, he wishes to receive in the event he suffers an incapacitating illness.

Hughes, twice a widower, is survived by his 10 children and stepchildren.