Edward Barocas, who spent 17 years as legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey before his 2018 retirement, was named Attorney of the Year at the Law Journal’s Professional Excellence gala Wednesday night.
The announcement highlighted the program, held at Brooklake Country Club in Florham Park in recognition of all this year’s Professional Excellence honorees.
Barocas was recognized for the important role he played in consolidated cases that in 2018 went to the New Jersey Supreme Court on the question of whether government grants issued to religious institutions violated constitutional law principles. Last year also saw Barocas wrap up his tenure as legal director of the ACLU-NJ, a role in which he took on similarly important cases on a daily basis.
Attorney of the Year finalists Robin Kay Lord and Stephen Orlofsky also were honored at the event, as were honorees in the Law Journal’s other Professional Excellence categories: Lifetime Achievement, Litigation Departments of the Year, Legal Departments of the Year/GC Impact Awards, Dealmakers of the Year, Mentors, Unsung Heroes and New Leaders of the Bar.
The group of three finalists, from a much larger group of nominees, and Barocas’ eventual selection as winner were determined by a vote of a panel made up of members of the legal community as well as Law Journal staff.
Barocas was unable to attend the event but told the Law Journal that receiving the award “is an incredible honor and a wonderful ending to a career I loved.”
“And while I am now retired from full-time legal work, I am grateful in knowing that there are so many attorneys in our state who seek—like I did—to find joy in their work not only from doing well, but from doing good,” Barocas said.
He urged attorneys to look to the New Jersey Constitution for furnishing individual protections at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court’s approach to federal constitutional principles could be in flux. New Jersey, through constitutional provisions that are sometimes neglected from review, is a leader in protection of individual rights, and should remain so, he added.
Barocas concluded his comments to the Law Journal with some humor that he credited to his closest friends.
“And people who hate the ACLU would agree that I deserve the award for this past year,” Barocas said. “They would say I did one act during this time that would best benefit New Jersey jurisprudence: I retired.”
Before that retirement last year, Barocas was involved in two cases raising important questions of constitutional law that made their way to the New Jersey Supreme Court: One as direct counsel to litigants challenging government grants to a yeshiva and a seminary, and another as amicus in a case concerning government grants to Morris County churches for rehabilitation. Barocas argued the former case, ACLU-NJ v. Hendricks. The court remanded the case to the secretary of education to conduct hearings for further fact-finding, and so that case did not garner a watershed ruling on the law of the matter (as the Morris County case did). But the remand allowed another opportunity to seek discovery that couldn’t be obtained previously, Barocas previously noted.
At Wednesday night’s gala—attended by some 230 guests, according to ALM Media’s events staff—Barocas was honored along with many other New Jersey lawyers in a variety of practices.
Among them were the Lifetime Achievement winners: John Keefe Sr., a retired presiding Appellate Division judge who in his remarks urged attorneys to maintain high standards of professionalism in the practice of law; and Alma Saravia, former director of the Division of Mental Health Advocacy, who spoke to attendees about her rewarding experience with fully devoting herself to the cause of justice.
Barocas’ selection as Attorney of the Year came near the end of Wednesday night’s program.
ACLU-NJ executive director Amol Sinha accepted the award on behalf of—and delivered a speech authored by—Barocas.
“I have long-admired Robin Kay Lord’s tireless defense of criminal defendants and challenges to police misconduct. I first met Judge Stephen Orlofsky when I was a young attorney appearing in his courtroom. I was in complete awe of his brilliance then; two decades later I remain in awe of that brilliance and of his great works. I also congratulate the well-deserving recipients of the other awards bestowed tonight,” Sinha read from the remarks, which gave credit to the ACLU-NJ lawyers Barocas has worked with over the years.
“My parents instilled in me a sense of fairness and justice, and I felt the need to act on that. Luckily, the ACLU-NJ and my prior legal positions gave me an outlet for my energy in a way that could actually make a difference instead of just ranting into the wind. In the last two decades, I was able to work on, supervise and often help craft many of the most exciting and cutting edge civil liberties cases in our state.”