Judge Stern Retires

Last night, I attended the retirement dinner for Judge Stern, who turned 70 last week.  Among the over 300 attendees were current and former Supreme Court Justices, sitting and retired judges of other courts, Governor Brendan Byrne, and many lawyers and friends of Judge Stern, as well as his family.

Chief Justice Rabner set the tone for the evening in his remarks about Judge Stern, whom he called “a giant in the history of the New Jersey judiciary.”  The Chief Justice described how Judge Stern can recite from memory Title 2C, the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, since he played a key role in its drafting.

Judge Wefing, who replaced Judge Stern as Presiding Judge for Administration and as a temporary assignee to the Supreme Court, stated that he “can never be replaced.”  She praised Judge Stern’s “consummate ability and unquestioned integrity.”

Other speakers included Governor Byrne, retired Appellate Division Judge Geoffrey Gaulkin, NJSBA President Susan M. Feeney, Fernando Pinguelo (representing Judge Stern’s 49 law clerks), Judge Stern’s wife and three sons, and Judge Stern himself.

Judge Stern was appointed to the bench by Governor Byrne in 1981 and renominated after his initial term by Governor Kean in 1988.  After serving at the trial level in both Hudson and Essex Counties, he was promoted to the Appellate Division in 1985 and became Presiding Judge for Administration in 2004, succeeding Judge Sylvia Pressler.

In 2010, Chief Justice Rabner named Judge Stern to fill temporarily the Supreme Court seat that had been held by Justice Wallace, who was not reappointed.  Judge Stern has written over 400 published opinions in his career, and multiple times that many unpublished decisions.  Since his elevation by Chief Justice Rabner, Judge Stern has authored ten opinions for the Supreme Court, as well as several other concurring or dissenting opinions.

In his time as the Appellate Division’s Presiding Judge for Administration, Judge Stern was the prime mover behind the Appellate Division’s Civil Appeal Pro Bono Pilot Program, under which attorneys volunteer to represent, in certain types of cases, appellants who are found to be indigent and who could not afford to pay for the trial transcript(s).  The volunteer attorneys bear the transcript cost.  Among other firms who have handled cases under the Pilot Program, my own firm, Lite DePalma Greenberg, LLC, has handled four such appeals.

Though more support from the Bar is needed, the Pilot Program has enabled appellants who could not otherwise have afforded to appeal to obtain appellate review and, in some cases, reversals.  To the great delight of Judge Stern, Judge Wefing announced near the end of the evening that the retirement dinner had raised $2,000 for a New Jersey State Bar Association fund to pay for transcripts for pro bono appeals.

Judge Stern is known for his clear and well-crafted opinions.  But his scholarship extends beyond his role as an opinion writer.  A member of the American Law Institute, Judge Stern also delivered the Weintraub Lecture at Rutgers-Newark School of Law in 2008, entitled Frustrations of an Intermediate Appellate Judge (and the Benefits of Being One in New Jersey), 60 Rutgers Law Review 971.

Before taking the bench, Judge Stern touched virtually every base in the law.  After clerking for Judge Edward Gaulkin of the Appellate Divison, Judge Stern was in private practice with a well-regarded firm from 1967-70.  He then joined the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office as First Assistant, a position he held for three years, and was Acting Prosecutor from 1973-74.  Judge Stern then became Director of Criminal Practice at the Administrative Office of the Courts and, from 1978-80, a Deputy Attorney General.  He returned to the Administrative Office of the Courts, as Director of Legal Services, whence he was nominated to the bench.

I have had the pleasure of knowing Judge Stern through our service together on the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Appellate Practice Committee.  I was Chair of that Committee when Judge Stern initiated the Pro Bono Pilot Program.  He is the consummate gentleman, considerate of lawyers and their clients, and quick with a bit of humor or a kind word.  I have never heard him speak harshly to, or about, anyone, even those who do not have his formidable intellect or experience.

In like vein, many of last night’s speakers praised Judge Stern’s personal qualities.  Judge Wefing noted that he is “a friend to everyone he meets.”  One of Judge Stern’s sons perhaps said it best when he observed that Judge Stern is “judicious without being judgmental.”

Judge Stern closed the evening by calling Judge Rodriguez, the new Presiding Judge for Administration, and Joseph Orlando, the Clerk of the Appellate Division, to the podium.  With a deadpan expression and in a solemn tone of voice, Judge Stern publicly returned his Blackberry, giving the crowd a hearty laugh.

We will all miss him.

My thanks to Eliberty Lopez, one of my firm’s summer law clerks, for her invaluable research for this post.

5 Responses to “Judge Stern Retires”

  1. Julie Krishnaswami says:

    Great tribute! Judge Stern is an excellent jurist — he will be missed.

  2. John Afflitto says:

    I wouldn’t give two cents for Judge Stern. Just another bureaucrat making a good living off the taxpayer funds. I mention this because of a Family Court case I was involved in which I was forced to appeal a couple of incompetent decisions made by the Family Court in Morristown (and it was an important case for matrimonial law) but in the end Judge Stern allowed injustice to take place and enabled the Family Court to express their gross prejudice because of a mere technicality. The results of that injustice have affected me until this day, 8 years later and will continue to affect me negatively in the future. Even a child could have seen the great injustice and unfairness that was going down in that case. But judge Stern allowed a technicality to interfere with justice because he had no guts and just didn’t care. Now when I teach (college), I always take time to warn my students about the dysfunction in the NJ Court system. I was involved in one other court case in my lifetime, which was relatively inconsequential for me but the dysfunction of the NJ court was also apparent in that case. In my lifetime (I’m 62 years old), I have never dealt with any institution or organization, government or otherwise, that performed more poorly or was as dysfunctional as what I experienced in the NJ Courts. It was a disgrace and I have to hold its leaders, like Judge Stern, responsible.
    As an honest and decent taxpayer in the state of NJ I deserved fairness and justice. What I got was a travesty of justice.

  3. John Afflitto says:

    Now I will give you a little truth which was ever so lacking in my experience in court. Both the Family Court and the NJ Appellate court, are not courts of justice but rather of expediency.

    Now when a young person tells me they are considering a career in law, I tell them run for your life. Ad that is sad, very sad.

  4. Dsyphrett says:

    Can you refer me to pro bono appeallate help. I had an awful family court experience that included ex parte testimony without the opportunity to cross, orders barring me from objecting to closing or summation, when I did object I was removed from the court, not fully heard. Judges summation included fabricated facts/ testimony from unnamed ppl who never appeared in fort to testify… These findings impacted my parental rights, which were terminated without counsel present despite my request

  5. Levine says:

    I appealed a decision from Mercer County Civil Court with a Pro Se brief. Judge Stern rendered a decision against me proving that this justice did not know the difference between a Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy. In a motion for reconsideration I explained the difference. After my brief and my adversary’s brief were submitted for the Motion and time for the adversary’s brief was long past, Judge Stern asked my adversary, a lawyer, her opinion of the bankruptcy laws. My adversary sided with me. Instead of granting a reversal of the decision, which I appealed related to the bankruptcy and a bank mortgage debt wrongly placed against me, JUDGE STERN INSERTED AN UNRELATED ISSUE THAT WAS NEVER ARGUED TO MAKE SURE THAT MERCER COUNTY ORDER WAS NEVER REVERSED! The case was eventually settled with the bank with the proper mortgage debt and a reduction in excessive legal fees by my adversary, but only after filing an appeal of the related bankruptcy decision in the Federal District Court where the District Court Judge was so annoyed with the bankruptcy court and Judge Sterns decision that he told the litigants to settle the matter quickly with reasonable terms according to the District Court decision and never come back to court. It should be obvious from that decision in Federal District Court that the New Jersey Appellate Courts are loath to overturn even unjust lower court rulings and even criminal jury verdicts. The Appellate Justices frequently state that the arguments are without merit and do not deserve comment. Such statements from Appellate Justices do not serve Justice and are the reason for the multiple appeals and multiple Habeas Corpus Petitions. From this one case it appears that Justices in New Jersey are allowed to rule on cases wherein the Justice has little education in the law of the case or has forgotten the law and refuses to ask for help (amicus curiae briefs)(either bankruptcy law or other civil and criminal law). Judge Stern’s poor decision was very costly with court fees and time. He failed to seek a settlement of any kind that was reasonable. The Appellate Court does not appear to understand reasonable settlements that only King Solomon would understand. They refuse to remand cases back to the lower court for evidentiary hearings or hearings with other experts in decisions that could go either way. The Honorable Sylvia Pressler is sadly missed for her excellent work and comments in the Rules of the Courts of New Jersey.

  6. […] Chair of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Appellate Practice Committee, as discussed here.  A number of lawyers at my firm, Lite DePalma Greenberg, LLC, have gotten valuable appellate […]

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