Federal Bankruptcy Judge Morris Stern. (Carmen Natale)
Morris Stern, a judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey in Newark since 2001, died Feb. 12 at the age of 72.
Stern had been battling liver cancer for the past 21 months but continued working in chambers until about three weeks before his death. After that, he worked at home and wrote his final opinion two days before his death, says U.S. Bankruptcy Court clerk James Waldron.
Stern—known to friends and colleagues as Mickey—is remembered as a knowledgeable, well-prepared and considerate judge.
“He treated litigants like human beings, no matter whether they were a creditor or debtor. He was just a very compassionate man,” Waldron says.
Simon Kimmelman, a bankruptcy lawyer at Sills, Cummis & Gross in Princeton, says Stern “was universally respected and admired. He was an extremely fair trial judge and was always courteous to litigants and attorneys—he went out of his way to be so.”
Stern was also known as a legal educator. Before taking the bench, he was a member of the faculty at Rutgers Law School-Newark while he practiced law. As a judge, he continued to teach courses in commercial law and bankruptcy law as an adjunct lecturer.
“Mickey Stern was one of our most memorable colleagues at the law school,” says Rutgers Law School-Newark professor and former dean Peter Simmons. “Those who believe that law is both a learned and a human profession have lost a true friend and leader.”
Stern graduated from Weequahic High School in Newark in 1958 and earned a B.S. degree in industrial engineering from Lafayette College in 1962. In 1965, he graduated from Rutgers Law School, where he was editor of the Rutgers Law Review and a dean’s award recipient.
From 1966 to 1968, he was on active duty as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps.
After clerking for Superior Court Judge Robert Matthews of the Hudson County Chancery Division, he joined Stern, Dubrow & Marcus in Maplewood, where he practiced for 31 years in commercial litigation and transactional law.
In 1975 he received an LL.M. from New York University School of Law.
Stern was appointed a bankruptcy judge in 2001.
Among his notable cases were the bankruptcies of Bayonne Medical Center, Christ Hospital in Jersey City and St. Mary’s Hospital in Passaic.
Michael Sirota, cochair of the bankruptcy practice at Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard in Hackensack, who was involved in those matters, recalls them as “very complex…cases where there were diverse interests and matters that were hotly disputed, and he handled it magnificently in the way he rendered his decisions. He was extremely quick and thorough in rendering his decisions and he always made very party feel like they had a complete opportunity to develop their case.”
Stern was concerned about the troubled institutions’ employees and the local residents who relied on them for healthcare, and to his credit those facilities remained in operation after bankruptcy, Sirota says.
“You have to marvel at his brilliance, his compassion, and his kindness, and how he handled himself in the courtroom. He was the consummate judge.”
In 2006, Stern called attention to the mortgage industry’s practice of “robo-signing,” in which lenders skirted the rule requiring them to certify the accuracy of data showing debtors in arrears.
He imposed a $125,000 sanction on Shapiro & Diaz in Marlton for submitting photocopied certifications in some 250 cases where debtors were in arrears on mortgage payments required by Chapter 13 plans. In reviewing the case of Jenny Rivera, a borrower in Lodi, Stern found that the law firm filed photocopied signature pages bearing the name of a former employee of a company owned by a principal of the firm.
The $125,000 sanction, which amounted to $500 for each of the faulty certifications, was viewed as a warning to high-volume practice areas that depend on mass filings.
A decade ago, Stern was instrumental in founding the New Jersey Bankruptcy Lawyers Foundation, which helps debtors with filing fees and living expenses such as utility bills and back rent. The group gives away about $50,000 a year, raised through donations and events such as golf tournaments, says immediate past president John Sherwood of Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland.
“What Judge Stern did was plant the idea, and once the organization was formed he stepped back and watched,” Sherwood says.
Stern served as a commissioner of the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority, chair of a Supreme Court of New Jersey District Ethics Committee, and member of the New Jersey Law Journal Editorial Board. He also was a Maplewood Township Planning Board member and an elected member of the Maplewood Township Committee.