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  Judge Stern has written over 400 published opinions in his career, and multiple times that many unpublished decisions.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.