The Interview Issue: For Garg, Jersey roots are at core of passion for public service — and policy he helps to shape in unprecedented time

When Gov. Phil Murphy talks about wanting the state to reinvigorate its innovative economy and reclaim its place as a state built around science and research, Parimal Garg quietly nods to himself.

He understands the concept. The fact that Bell Labs recruited his father, Amrish Garg, to work in New Jersey is the reason Parimal Garg — recently promoted to chief counsel to the governor — is in the state today.

“Whenever I think about the history of the state and our legacy of innovation and Thomas Edison, I know those things are literally the reason I’m here,” he said. 

“The decision for my parents to come here was dictated by the fact that New Jersey was home to an exciting company like that — and that the state was viewed as a great place to raise kids because we had great public schools. So, it always feels a little bit more personal for me.”

Garg, 31, wears his Jersey roots proudly. He says New Jersey pizza is the best — and what he missed most when he went to college at Georgetown University and then to Harvard Law School. And he loves how public policy and government interact and intersect here in a way few other states can match, something he first witnessed when he clerked for former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

Today, he is seeing that firsthand, as he has been a leading voice in the now hundreds of executive orders Murphy has announced during an unprecedented time. He realizes that he is part of a historical moment in government — a unique melding of the law and public policy.

Garg recently talked about all this and more with ROI-NJ as part of our Interview Issue, our year-end look at some of the most inspiring and intriguing people in business and government around the state. That included his only other love: the New York Knicks.

Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: You mention the innovative economy brought you to the state. Talk about how science and research and learning sculpted your childhood?

Parimal Garg: I grew up in Lawrenceville and went to Lawrence High School. My parents both had science backgrounds. My dad was an engineer and my mom (Rehka Garg) studied math. (His older sister, Payal Garg, is a scientist for a biotech firm in Boston.)

ROI: We’re not hearing the word ‘lawyer.’ How did that career path develop?

Garg’s favorite New Jerseyan

“Bill Bradley. And, to be honest, it’s less because he was a distinguished senator and presidential candidate and more because he was a starter on two (New York) Knicks championship teams, which, unfortunately, the last of which was 47 years ago. In all seriousness, I always thought he was a real model of public service. Someone who advanced ideas in the U.S. Senate when he was running for president, someone to work across party lines and was a real statesman. Growing up, I always thought he was an incredible reflection of our state.”

Garg’s favorite thing about New Jersey

“Definitely the pizza. Having lived outside of New Jersey, I just think that the pizza in other states does not compare. I am a big fan of trying different places throughout the state. A particular favorite of mine is Santillo’s in Elizabeth. And I like pizza plain. I’m old school.” (We asked: Garg is against pineapple on pizza, but an executive order prohibiting it does not appear to be coming anytime soon.)

PG: To be honest, I knew almost no lawyers growing up in the South Asian community. The first lawyer I got to know on a personal level was my high school mock trial instructor, an attorney named Steve Goodell, who still practices today. He works at Parker McCay, represents the NJSIAA and is an incredibly inspiring story. He was involved in a tragic accident a few years ago that left him quadriplegic, but he continues to practice law. I talk to him for work matters fairly often. 

Goodell and Mark Rowe, who was my high school history teacher, ran our high school’s mock trial program, and they took it very seriously. We had a very successful program. Over 11 years, we won the Central Region six times and finished second in the state three times. So, they were my first introduction to the law, and their passion for the law, and for the trial process in particular, was inspiring.

ROI: We can hear the passion you have for the program. It’s funny how our high school successes stay with us.

PG: We took it very seriously. We would always go against the Lawrenceville School, which is regarded as of the best private schools in the country, and we beat them all the time.

ROI: So, here you are, a bigshot lawyer, but you still have so much pride in a high school competition. It’s like a World Series champion talking about his Little League days.

PG: My Little League career was very undistinguished. Let’s not talk about that.

ROI: Fair enough. But you are a huge sports fan — at least, a huge Knicks fan.

PG: It’s a long-suffering existence, but we have a new general manager, some young players. Hope springs eternal.

ROI: Porzingis, Carmelo, Lin-sanity, LJ, Ewing — what’s your Knicks team?

PG: I’m a huge Carmelo Anthony fan. I didn’t become a diehard Knicks fan until we traded for Carmelo in 2011. The first team I really got into was that 2012-13 team, which won 54 games, finished second in the Eastern Conference, made the second round of the playoffs and lost to the Pacers in six. That was just a great team, and Carmelo led the league in scoring that year, surrounded by a bunch of shooters: Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Steve Novak, Chris Copeland, J.R. Smith and Tyson Chandler as a defensive anchor and the rim protector. I just thought it was a great team — not overwhelmingly talented, but everyone knew their role and played it well. Unfortunately, that’s the last time we made the playoffs.

I don’t know how well this speaks of me, because it was my second year of law school, but I somehow found time to watch every single one of the 82 games. I kind of had a feeling it was a special team and a special season.

ROI: While the Knicks’ fortunes have sunk since that season, your career seemingly has had nothing but wins. Talk about the decision to go into public service?

PG: I’ve always found politics and government to be fascinating. At their best, it’s really about competing arguments about what policies a city or state or country should pursue, what values we stand for. And the idea that, in a democracy, we really settle disputes over policy by having different parties, different ideological groups, make arguments, and then, ultimately, we let the voters decide, is quite powerful. The chance to be a part of that process and being able to make arguments for certain policies, or certain ideology in defense of certain values, I always found that incredibly exciting. That was really what drove me to public service.

ROI: Talk about clerking for Chief Justice Rabner?

PG: It was an enormous privilege. Everyone knows he’s a brilliant jurist with incredible work ethic and he’s devoted his entire career to public service. But I think the most impressive thing about him is just his unshakable integrity, his sense of ethics, his commitment to doing what’s right, and his unshakable commitment to his family, his faith and his community. He’s truly one of the best human beings that I’ve ever met. And he’ll always be a role model to me, not just as a lawyer, but really just as a person.

ROI: Let’s turn to the pandemic, where the governor essentially has ruled by executive order — and many of these orders are unlike anything the state has ever seen. In a profession built on precedent, how do you operate in times where there are no precedents?

PG: It’s certainly not ideal, but it’s something that, given the unprecedented public health crisis that we face, we really have no choice. The executive orders we’re issuing are the most far-reaching executive orders ever issued by a governor in our state’s history, because they’re addressing a pandemic that has affected New Jersey more than any other crisis in our history.

For the most part, there is very little precedent for the actions that we’re taking. That has made it more important to have strict principles really dictated by public health guiding our decision-making. Because, while the Disaster Control Act and the Emergency Health Powers Act give the executive branch very broad authority, as a legal matter, all of our decisions have to be rational. They can’t be arbitrary or capricious.

ROI: The governor talks about data driving decisions and policy. How does that play out in your role?

PG: What we have tried to do, and in close consultation with Commissioner (Judith) Perschilli and the Department of Health, is settle on certain principals that the science indicates to guide our decision-making. A few examples. One is that outdoor activities are safer than indoor activities. There are all sorts of studies that demonstrate this; I think one found that the risk of being infected indoors was 17 times greater than the risk of being infected outdoors. 

Another principle is that wearing a mask and or wearing a face covering is safer than not wearing a mask. And, again, that’s something that the science has clearly dictated in terms of how the virus transmits. That means activities where people do have to remove their masks are inherently more risky than activities that can be done with a mask on. 

For Garg, ‘The Practice’ made the job seem perfect

From Atticus Finch to Vincent LaGuardia Gambini and everyone in between, fictitious lawyers in arts and entertainment have helped define the profession — and inspire future members.

We asked Parimal Garg, chief counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy, which pop culture lawyer inspired him:

“One of my favorite shows growing up was ‘The Practice.’ It was about a small criminal defense firm in Boston. And a really good show. I always found the characters on that show, even though they were fictional, to be inspiring. They were all very good courtroom lawyers, but, more than that, they were people of integrity, people who approached their work with real humanity and empathy.

“Two people in particular: Eugene Young (played by Steve Harris) and Ellenor Frutt (played by Camryn Manheim). The central tenet of the show was that, because they were a criminal defense firm, a lot of times they had to defend people who either they thought were guilty or knew were guilty — but people who, under our criminal defense system, were entitled to the most zealous defense possible. And that’s the way that the system is supposed to work.

“That’s very challenging from a moral and an ethical perspective. But these were people who really approached it with enormous integrity. It made for very compelling show. That was probably why I always gravitated more toward that then the ‘Law & Order’ shows.”

And then, the third principle is that any type of activity where people have to come together for a prolonged amount of time is more dangerous than activities where interactions are more transient or fleet. 

So, those three principles are firmly rooted in the science. And I think that’s one reason why all of our executive orders have been upheld in the dozens of lawsuits that have brought. We just didn’t have a lot of examples of governors having to take these actions in the past, so we had to come up with rationales that grounded our actions, both in in the governor’s legal authority, and in the interests of public health.

ROI: So, there was no precedent for these actions — which means you are setting precedent now. How much has that played a part in your actions?

PG: Hopefully, this is truly a once-in-a lifetime pandemic. But we have been pretty cognizant of that. The toughest executive orders that we ever had to write were 104 and 107, which really shut down that state. Those orders did things that no governor had ever had to do before. 

Executive Order 107, which ordered all residents to stay at home and canceled all gatherings, were concepts that there was no precedent. So, we tried to be very deliberate and very careful in terms of how we define gatherings, making it clear that, for instance, people going to work didn’t constitute a gathering — because, then, that would really impair people’s ability to pursue their livelihood and still receive their paychecks. With the stay-at-home order, we were very careful to outline a series of exceptions, including people leaving their home for religious activity, people leaving their home for political activity, people leaving their home for educational purposes or to go to an essential business or even to be able to walk outdoors or to exercise. 

ROI: These orders likely will be some of the most important work you’ll ever do. And you did it on an almost daily basis. Talk about working under that time crunch?

PG: I think we had between 30 and 36 hours for each of those orders — orders which were governing and regulating all of society and a lot of ways. But we were cognizant of the fact that, No. 1, these orders may be challenged in court in the short term. And then, in the long term, future governors who are facing, God forbid, similar situations will look back upon. So, we wanted to be as deliberate as possible. We wanted to make sure that we were being absolutely respectful of the First Amendment activities. And that’s why, since the outset, we’ve always allowed religious and political activities to have additional leeway. 

We definitely had to act quickly. And we did. But we wanted to make sure that we were addressing these issues in a thoughtful way.

ROI: You were a key part of the team that put those orders together. But, at the time, you were the deputy chief counsel under Matt Platkin, who has since left the administration. Moving to the first position always is a little different. How long did it take to get a sense of how different that top spot is?

PG: I think one moment that stands out came during my first week as chief counsel. I got a call from the Attorney General’s Office letting me know that that two brothers, an 8-year-old and a 16-year-old, had been murdered in Trenton. It was really just a shocking and an appalling crime. It struck me at that moment I was being told — so I could tell the governor and counsel him on how to publicly respond to that kind of awful tragedy — the scope of this job. It was a very sobering moment. I realized that, whenever anything goes wrong, that I will be the one from the Governor’s Office who will be notified — and it’s part of my job to be the one to take that information to the governor and counsel him on how to respond. That was something that really stood out to me.

ROI: Last question. Being chief counsel can lead to a number of jobs, both in the private sector and the public sector. You could be the attorney general, the state’s attorney, a supreme court judge or candidate for office. What other jobs seem to match your skillset and passion?

PG: I think, in a lot of ways, that the job that I have now is a dream job. I really do like working at the intersection of law and policy and politics. As for where that leaves the rest of my career, it’s hard to say, but I do expect the vast majority of my career to be in public service in one respect or another. And I feel a special bond to New Jersey, it’s the state where I was born and raised. So, I see myself being heavily involved in New Jersey for a long time. 

I haven’t really thought about what comes next for me or what I might want to do down the road, other than a general predisposition to any type of job where I feel like I have the ability to advance the public interest.

ROI: How about general manager of the Knicks?

PG: That is one job where I would make an exception. That is the true dream job.