A Flip in Time — For months, Sen. Robert Menendez had blocked U.S. Magistrate Judge Patty Shwartz‘s nomination to the Third Circuit amid accusations that it was for personal reasons. On Jan. 6, he denied holding a grudge against an assistant U.S. attorney with whom Shwartz had a long-term romantic relationship. Rather, he insisted, Shwartz “did not adequately demonstrate the breadth of knowledge of constitutional law and pivotal Supreme Court decisions” needed for the job. He cited in particular the Citizens United ruling on corporate campaign spending. But by Jan. 13, Menendez had reinterviewed Shwartz and relented, saying, “She adequately allayed my earlier concerns.” Shwartz was still awaiting Senate approval as of the year’s end.
Bricks Stay Mortared — The state Supreme Court’s Professional Responsibility Rules Committee recommended an unprecedented loosening of the “bona fide office” rule: lifting the requirement of a physical plant so long as the lawyer was reachable by clients, other lawyers and the courts for official business, including service of process. The proposal, a concession to new-age technology that makes it easy for lawyers to work remotely, was warmly hailed by solo and part-time practitioners, especially those with child-care responsibilities. But the court apparently had trepidations, keeping the recommendation “under consideration.” There was still no action as of year’s end.
Family Matters — Gov. Chris Christie‘s attempt to give the state Supreme Court its first Asian-American justice fell flat. The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected First Assistant Attorney General Phillip Kwon after grilling him for more than six hours at a hearing about his family’s finances. His mother’s liquor store in Mount Vernon, N.Y., had settled a federal government suit over more than $2 million in allegedly improper bank deposits. Kwon insisted on his lack of involvement and said he had counseled his mother that cash deposits of just under $10,000, as were her habit, were red flags. Kwon was also challenged as to his political affiliation. He claimed to be an independent but was a registered Republican in New York as late as 2010.
Keeping Overhead Down — A year after the Law Journal‘s Top 20 firms roared back from their first slide in revenue and profits in a quarter century, the resurgence continued and, in fact, righted the key metrics to their prerecession trend lines. This year’s survey showed the Top 20 firms grossing $1.69 billion in 2011, up 3.3 percent from $1.63 billion in 2010, and netting $581.7 million, which was 4.9 percent more than $554.6 million in 2010. What’s more, the firms accomplished those gains while holding at relative stasis in numbers of lawyers. The high-yield/low-overhead formula was best applied by Lowenstein Sandler, which vaulted to first place — marking the first time in 26 years that McCarter & English didn’t hold the survey’s top spot.
Taking a Mulligan — In a rare self-reversal, the state Supreme Court speedily corrected an opinion in a defamation case that purportedly authorized an award of punitive damages based only on nominal damages — in clear conflict with the Punitive Damages Act. The mistake was of no small importance, since the prospect of winning punitives may be the only incentive for a lawyer to take on a defamation case in which compensatory damages are hard to prove. Thomas Cafferty, representing the amicus New Jersey Press Association in W.J.A. v. D.A., was one of the lawyers who brought the error to the court’s attention by letter. They had sought reargument, but the court’s revised opinion, five days after the original, made it unnecessary.
Double Disqualified — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit bounced U.S. District Judge William Martini from the murder-conspiracy and racketeering case against former prosecutor Paul Bergrin, finding his impartiality might reasonably be questioned. Martini’s ouster was a victory for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which had clashed repeatedly with Martini during Bergrin’s first trial that ended with a hung jury, especially as to counts under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The same day, another Third Circuit panel in an unrelated case, U.S. v. Kennedy, found Martini’s actions and remarks — such as questioning the propriety of a 40-year sentence and coming close to taking the role of defense attorney — were grounds for removal there as well.
Pyrrhic Victory — Superior Court Judge Paul DePascale won his challenge to reform legislation increasing judge’s pension and health-care contributions … for about a week. The state Supreme Court ruled on July 24 that the law violated the state constitutional ban, art. VI, sec. 6, par. 6, on diminishing judges’ salaries during their terms in office. But on July 30, by overwhelming majorities, both the Senate and the Assembly approved a constitutional amendment to undo the ruling. The proposed change would specifically exempt pension and health-care deductions from the clause. The amendment, which enjoyed remarkable cross-party support, would go on the ballot in November and win passage with 83 percent of the vote.
Diversity Lags — New Jersey firms notched nearly no progress during the prior year in improving gender and ethnic diversity, a Law Journal survey showed. Women made up 28.78 percent of total lawyers at the firms studied, slightly less than 29.43 percent last year. And minorities dropped a tad, to 8.05 percent from 8.42 percent. In raw numbers, there were 2.91 percent fewer women and 5.08 percent fewer minorities in the lawyer ranks. Worse news was on the horizon, as other surveys showed representation of minorities and women in law schools declining. “The pool of diverse future lawyers is growing smaller, not larger,” noted former Seton Hall School of Law dean Ronald Riccio, now with McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter.
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