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In a farewell statement released on his last day on the bench, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Stripp apologized for his failure to treat attorneys with “patience, respect and courtesy.” Stripp, who sat in the Trenton, N.J., vicinage for 14 years, was denied reappointment because of lawyers’ complaints about his demeanor. He said that although his intention “to promote a high standard of integrity and professionalism” was worthy, his often caustic manner was “inappropriate.” “[I]f a lawyer who appeared before me was unprepared or careless in his work, or appeared to be taking unfair advantage of a client or adversary, or was inconsiderate of the needs of the court and other parties … , I was outspoken in pointing out the problem. Perhaps too outspoken,” Stripp said in his Sept. 14 letter. Stripp explained that he “struggled with a personal irritability, which unfortunately manifested itself as a harsh and angry manner.” Though he eventually “sought assistance,” it was too late by then, given many attorneys’ “long memories of being publicly criticized and embarrassed,” he wrote. Even by his own recounting, “such instances never completely stopped.” “The primary purpose of this letter is to apologize to those whom I offended or embarrassed in my courtroom,” he wrote. “I leave office with great regret for that, not so much because it cost me my office, but rather because it violated a cornerstone principle of my life, which is to treat others as I would like to be treated.” It was a rare display of contrition for a judge, and rarer still for a judge who was denied reappointment because of unpopularity with the bar. The judges of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted Stripp off the bench in May, acting under a modified reappointment process created by Chief Circuit Judge Edward Becker last year. Becker adopted a questionnaire to obtain attorney input in reappointment decisions. He also published a notice soliciting attorney comments. On May 25, the 3rd Circuit issued a low-key press release that Becker would soon name members of a merit selection committee to recommend candidates to succeed Stripp. Neither the questionnaire responses nor the attorney comments were made public. The press release did not say why he was leaving the bench, but Stripp acknowledged in his letter that his reappointment was denied “on the sole grounds of lack of judicial temperament.” “People tend to have long memories of being publicly criticized and embarrassed, and it is human nature to be slow to forgive,” he wrote. “Most of the lawyers who were critical of my temperament in the questionnaire answers therefore requested that I be removed from the bench, rather than admonished to improve.” Stripp thanked those lawyers who although “critical of my temperament had the fairness to provide favorable ratings of my judicial competence.” The New Jersey Law Journal‘s Federal Judicial Survey, published on Jan. 29, painted a similar picture of Stripp: effective and knowledgeable but abusive to those who appeared before him. The survey asked bankruptcy practitioners to rate judges anonymously in 10 categories on a one-to-10 scale. Survey respondents rated Stripp average to superior in legal knowledge (8.35), familiarity with matters before him (8.35), and movement of proceedings without delay (8.23). But those scores contrasted sharply with his demeanor score (4.12), which was the lowest among all bankruptcy judges. And the net effect was to drag down his overall score to 7.50, which translated into a C-minus. More than 200 lawyers evaluated Stripp for the New Jersey Law Journal survey. Some lawyers interviewed used terms like “cold and nasty,” “short-fused” and “sarcastic” to describe Stripp’s manner. “On the bench he had a high expectation level and when an attorney didn’t meet it he could be merciless,” former clerk Linda Schwimmer said last week, calling her former mentor “a very frail human, with a sensitive side, who was aware of his shortcomings when it came to his demeanor but wasn’t able to sufficiently change those shortcomings in time to save his judgeship.” Schwimmer, a partner with Markowitz, Gravelle & Schwimmer in Lawrenceville, N.J., called Stripp’s departure “a tremendous loss” for the court and a tragedy for him. “When you look at the reviews, he was strong in everything else … but this one criteria was so lopsided,” she said. For setting high standards Stripp made no apologies, but he admitted, “The manner in which a message is conveyed is … often as important as the message itself.” Stripp repeated in his letter an observation heard from bankruptcy lawyers: that, as a result of his outspokenness and his restrictive allowance of counsel fees, “many large Chapter 11 cases involving New Jersey corporations [were] filed in Delaware or Manhattan for fear of the case being assigned to me.” As for future plans, Stripp indicated that he would take off several months to rest but that he does not know what he would do after that. At the time of his appointment to the bench in 1987, Stripp was an associate with West Paterson, N.J.’s Evans, Hand, Allabough & Amoresano, now defunct. Stripp teaches bankruptcy law as an adjunct professor at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University School of Law, his alma mater. He received his bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame University in 1974.

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