I learned over the weekend that Stephen W. Townsend, the former Clerk of the Supreme Court had died. His obituary states that the date of his death was April 22.
A graduate of Dumont High School, Bucknell University, and, in 1970, the Dickinson College School of Law, Stephen Townsend spent his entire professional life in the service of the New Jersey judiciary. Following a clerkship after law school, he was a senior attorney in the legal research section of the Administrative Office of the Courts. In 1973, he became Deputy Clerk of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, a position that he held until 1977.
At that point. Stephen Townsend was appointed Acting Clerk of the Court. In 1978, he was named Clerk of the Supreme Court. He held that position until 2009, when he retired. His service at the Court spanned the terms of seven Chief Justices.
Stephen Townsend’s longevity in service to New Jersey’s judiciary was far from his only attribute. He generously contributed his efforts to those in other jurisdictions as well. He served with distinction with the National Conference of Appellate Clerks, including seven years on its Executive Committee and a term as President of that organization. The National Conference honored him with a Distinguished Service Award.
All that and much more appears in the obituary. What does not appear there is the professional, and the gentleman, that Stephen was to those who worked with or for him.
I am fortunate to have been one of those people. I clerked on the Court for Justice O’Hern during the 1982-83 Term. Though I worked for the Justice, my ultimate boss (and that of all the law clerks) was Stephen.
For example, assignments for the Court’s lengthy bench memoranda came from him. He invited all of the clerks to come to Trenton once or twice during the Term to watch oral arguments (there was, of course, no streaming of arguments as there has been since 2005). But he also cautioned, half seriously and half in jest, that if he saw us in Trenton too often, he would know we didn’t have enough work to do and would send us more. The half in jest came from a man who was not only our boss, but our friend, ever available for advice about how to do our job, what the profession would be like afterward, and more.
It seemed to me then that Stephen must have been the Clerk forever, so completely and masterfully, and with such seeming ease, did he handle the job. Yet, he had been the Clerk for only four years by the time I began my clerkship. Even then, he defined the office, as he proceeded to do for 26 more years after my clerkship ended. Other judicial personnel would come and go, but Stephen Townsend was always, and seemingly would always be, the Clerk of the Supreme Court.
Just as Elizabeth II has been the only monarch of England in my lifetime, Stephen Townsend was for most of my professional career the only Clerk of the Supreme Court. When he was succeeded by Mark Neary and, most recently, by Heather Baker, two other consummate professionals, they had an ideal role model in Stephen.
Stephen also remembered everyone, and was always willing to help. Years after my clerkship, when I was Chair of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Appellate Practice Committee, we hoped to entice a Justice to join our panel at the NJSBA’s Annual Meeting. That was not a sure thing. But I called Stephen, and before I knew it, through his good offices, we had Justice Rivera-Soto, who helped us put on a very educational and well-attended presentation.
I also had the pleasure of interacting with Stephen during my fifteen years on the Supreme Court Committee on Character. Besides handling the duties of Clerk, he was Secretary of that Committee, as well as of the Board of Bar Examiners and the Board on Attorney Certification. In all those posts, he brought to bear his experience and his wisdom, helping new members adapt and the bodies as a whole to thrive and work at a high level.
Stephen Townsend was an institution and a wonderful human being, two things that are not always found in the same person. He was also a friend. Many, many of us, inside the judiciary and outside it, will miss him.