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The state’s federal practitioners say their judges are courteous, unbiased on race, hardworking and knowledgeable. They also say the jurists are not overly helpful in fostering settlements and sometimes take their sweet time in issuing rulings. That’s the mixed picture that emerges from the Law Journal‘s latest survey of New Jersey’s district judges � the third conducted since 1990 but the first to use printed questionnaires. [See survey results here.] Lawyers gave district judges an overall score of 7.97 out of a possible 10, lower than the 8.32 average for magistrate judges and the 8.17 for bankruptcy judges. The district judges’ marks vary widely from judge to judge and from category to category. One judge, Alfred Lechner Jr., has a swing of 4.34 between his highest and lowest scores, while his colleague on the Newark bench, Nicholas Politan, has a swing of only .80 in his 10 marks. On a bell curve of overall scores for all the district judges, two received Ds. The only A+ went to Judge Dickinson Debevoise, whose overall score of 8.99 was well ahead of the field. Debevoise, who also sits in Newark and who has been on senior status since 1995, topped seven of the 10 categories. Judge Joseph Rodriguez of Camden placed first in two categories � demeanor (question 9) and being free from bias based on race or ethnicity (question 10). The other category not won by Debevoise or Rodriguez was in the skill of moving litigants toward settlement (question 6), where Politan took the highest grade. At the other end was Judge William Walls of Newark, whose overall score of 6.56 placed him last, just barely behind Lechner, who received an overall score of 6.61. The two received Ds based on the bell curve. Although Walls received relatively poor marks across the board, an extremely low score for demeanor dragged down Lechner’s marks. Several lawyers interviewed about the survey results say they are not surprised that Walls fared poorly, though two who have appeared before him rate him as an intelligent and tough judge who cuts through the nonsense to get to the meat of a case. As for Lechner, even pulling out his damaging demeanor score – just 3.74 – would nevertheless leave him next to last. Several attorneys suggest that lawyers who have had trouble with Lechner’s demeanor unfairly punished him with low scores in categories that many consider his strength. For instance, Lechner’s 7.19 for demonstrating knowledge of substantive law (question 3) was 17th in the category, yet several lawyers say Lechner knows the law inside and out. “That’s crazy,” says one central New Jersey lawyer, adding, “He knows the law, he reads everything, and he knows the case. He’s very knowledgable.” A northern New Jersey veteran adds, “I know he’s going to take a beating, but it’s unfair. Guys who appear before him regularly and who are prepared have no problems with him because he’s a hard worker, he’s prepared and he knows the law. But it’s his reputation.” Camden Bench Scores High Of the three vicinages, the six-member Camden bench clearly fares best. Although Debevoise places first, judges who sit in Camden occupy the next four slots. Judge Jerome Simandle finishes second at 8.44, followed closely by Judges Stephen Orlofsky at 8.42, Rodriguez at 8.41 and Joel Pisano at 8.37. Moreover, Judge Stanley Brotman, a 25-year veteran of the bench who took senior status in 1991, places seventh, giving Camden five of the top seven positions. Judge Joseph Irenas was the lone Camden judge with relatively low scores, placing in the bottom third of the survey with an overall mark of 7.86. Like Lechner in the north, Irenas suffered from poor grades on how courteous and respectful he is to litigants and lawyers. None of the attorneys was surprised with Irenas’ low grade for demeanor. One northern New Jersey commercial litigator says of Irenas, “He pushes the schedule,” while another who has appeared before him several times adds, without knowing how Irenas did, “I’m sure they killed him” on demeanor. Yet both also say they believe that Irenas and Lechner received a bad rap. Both usually push lawyers who are unprepared, waste the court’s time or don’t know their case well. One southern New Jersey practitioner offers this explanation on Irenas’ low demeanor score of 5.66, the lowest score of the entire survey save for Lechner’s demeanor mark. “I’m not surprised that Irenas scored lower than the others in Camden,” he says. “Some lawyers feel mistreated, and feel there is a lack of respect given. But Irenas has heard that feedback and has changed. So while he may deserve the mark by his reputation, he has definitely improved.” Like Lechner, Irenas’s overall scored suffers from low marks in categories that some lawyers say are off base. One example, this lawyer maintains, was Irenas’ score for fostering settlements, which at 7.10 was his lowest and ranked 16th in that category. “He does call us in on his own initiative to try and settles cases,” this lawyer says. Similarly, they cite Lechner’s relatively low scores for case management (questions 7 and 8), saying he moves cases extremely quickly. In fact, Lechner scores roughly the same as Judge John Bissell on questions focusing on speed and management. But several attorneys interviewed say that Bissell is much slower. The Law Journal‘s 1995-96 guide showed that Bissell had by far the biggest backlog for 1994 and 1995. Bissell, despite placing sixth overall, did place 11th both for his ability to convene court and move proceedings without delay (question 7), and for the speed at which he issues orders, judgments and opinions (question 8). Says one northern New Jersey lawyer of Bissell, “He’s lazy, and his attitude is, ‘I’ll take that motion when I’m ready.’” As for Irenas, his marks mirrored comments he received in the Law Journal‘s 1995-96 Guide to Federal District Judges. At that time lawyers called him “smart . . . strong . . . A+ . . . a great legal mind.” But those same lawyers labeled him dificult to deal with and downright “nasty.” Moreover, in the 1999 edition of the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, practitioners described Irenas as a judge who is tough on lawyers who are unprepared or not up to snuff. As for the Camden judges, this lawyer says, “as a group they enjoy a reputation for demeanor, high professionalism, and for treating lawyers with respect.” He says that the late chief judge, John Gerry, set that tone. The smaller Trenton bench did relatively poorly. Chief Judge Anne Thompson places 18th, and her colleague, Judge Mary Cooper, places 19th. Garrett Brown Jr. winds up in the middle of the pack, with consistently good marks in all categories. As in the Law Journal‘s surveys of 1990 and 1996, lawyers describe Thompson as “nice . . . pleasant . . . gracious . . . courteous . . . hard-working [with] a great disposition.” But lawyers also continue to say she is indecisive and lacks the intellectual acumen of most of her peers. “She’s wonderful, but not the brightest star,” says one southern New Jersey practitioner, while a litigator from the north says, “She’s what a federal judge should be.” Thompson scored lowest, 6.80, in her ability to handle complex matters (question 4), and highest for being perceived as unbiased (question 10) and for demeanor (question 9) Cooper’s overall score is also brought down by her mark of 6.47 for ability to handle complex matters (question 4), as well as a 6.64 on question 8, issuing orders, judgments or opinions without delay. Highlights Here are some other highlights of the survey: � The highest overall grade given to the collective bench was that for being free from any bias based on race or ethnicity (question 10), with an average score of 8.98. It was the highest score for every judge except Lechner. His top mark of 8.08 was for convening court and moving proceedings fast (question 7), followed by question 8, which is issuing judgments, opinions and orders expediciously. That did not surprise any of the lawyers asked to comment on the results, as all had high praise for Lechner’s management skills and speed. Nevertheless, Lechner’s marks for questions 7 and 8 are still low by comparison. Three lawyers noted that he is usually the first judge in the courthouse daily, with one saying, “He’s up at 5:30 every day, he works his ass off, and for him to not be among the highest [on Nos. 7 and 8] is just bullshit.” � The lowest average mark for the entire bench was on question 6, moving litigants toward settlement. For seven of the judges � Debevoise, Simandle Orlofsky, Brotman, Brown, Irenas and William Bassler � it was their lowest mark. Several lawyers who were interviewed say that the magistrates usually handle settlement conferences, with the district judges coming in at a later point. Judges Dennis Cavanaugh and Joel Pisano, both former magistrate judges, scored well on question 6. Cavanaugh, who was just elevated to the District Court this past fall, places third in the category, while Pisano, who moved up in 1991, places second only to Politan. � The results reiterated what lawyers say about the District Court, as well as the magistrate judges, in general: It’s a terrific bench, not only compared with other districts but also with the state court. In fact, eight of the judges � Bissell, Brotman, Katherine Hayden, Cavanaugh, Alfred Wolin, Brown, Politan and John Lifland � are separated by a mere .22, or, from a B+ to a B-. “Having tried cases in the Far West and adjoining states, when you come back to New Jersey you kiss the courthouse,” says one commercial litigator. Adds another litigator who practices in state and federal court, “Our judges have a sense of integrity. They work hard and are decisive. It’s just an excellent bench.”

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