(Carmen Natale)

Stanley Brotman, a federal judge for four decades in New Jersey and the Virgin Islands known for his strong devotion to improving the court system, died Friday at the age of 89.

Brotman was appointed in 1975 by President Gerald Ford to the District of New Jersey. In 1979, he was assigned to sit by designation in the District Court of the Virgin Islands, which was experiencing backlogs, and he served as acting chief judge there from 1989 to 1992.

Taking senior status in 1990, he continued with an active caseload and sat from 1997 to 2004 on the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which evaluates requests from the FBI, the National Security Agency and other agencies for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign spies within the U.S.

He also periodically sat by designation on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Colleagues said Brotman enjoyed his work and lawyers liked appearing in his court.

“He was just a delight—he was always fair. He had a wonderful judicial temperament,” says Stephen Orlofsky, a former federal judge in Camden who calls his tenure as a U.S. magistrate judge under “one of the best professional experiences of my life.”

Jeremy Frey, a former federal prosecutor whose first experience first-chairing a trial was before Brotman, says his courtroom was a good training ground for young lawyers.

“He was mindful of not just the positions you were taking but mindful on a personal level of the rigors that trials present for defense and prosecution lawyers,” says Frey, now with Pepper Hamilton in Philadelphia.

He adds that Brotman “was moderate in his views and I don’t think anybody would ever call him pro-plaintiff or pro-defense or pro-prosecution. He defied those kinds of categories. He was focused on the idea of doing justice in each case.”

Born in Vineland in 1924 and raised there, he entered the U.S. Army in 1942 and was assigned to the Specialized Training Program for the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor of the CIA. He was stationed in Burma during World War II and studied the Burmese language. He received an honorable discharge in 1945.

He graduated from Yale University in 1947 and from Harvard Law School in 1950.

He was then recalled to active duty during the Korean War and was assigned to the Army Forces Security Agency in Washington, D.C.

In 1952, Brotman and Samuel Shapiro formed a law firm in Vineland and carried it on for 23 years.

While in practice, he served on the state Board of Bar Examiners and was a delegate to the American Bar Association. In 1974 he was elected president of the New Jersey State Bar Association and served until taking the bench in March 1975.

Among his cases on the federal court was Rennie v. Klein, 462 F. Supp. 1131 (1978), a ground-breaking ruling, upheld on appeal, that recognized mental patients’ First Amendment rights to refuse treatment or to receive the least restrictive treatment.

Orlofsky says Brotman was at the forefront of a movement to expand the duties of what were then called magistrates—to allow them to handle nondispositive motions pretrial conferences and to try cases with the parties’ consent. Those changes were later incorporated into statute, says Orlofsky, now with Blank Rome in Princeton.

Brotman’s law clerks included Shapiro’s son, Harold, and his grandson, Louis. The latter served in 1997-98, when Brotman handled a docket consisting of both New Jersey and Virgin Islands cases. Shapiro joined Brotman on several trips to the Virgin Islands that were far from relaxing, with days full of hearings and settlement conferences.

“It really wasn’t a vacation. It was a lot of work,” recalls Louis Shapiro, now a criminal defense lawyer in Vineland.

Shapiro says an important legacy of Brotman’s time as chief judge in the Virgin Islands was the way he worked to make the court “a top-notch federal system in line with U.S. district courts here on the mainland.”

Brotman had a close relationship with lawyers in the Virgin Islands. Orlofsky says that in 1989, Brotman was serving there when Hurricane Hugo devastated the islands, and 200 prisoners escaped when the local jail was damaged. Because Brotman had sentenced many of the prisoners, he was evacuated by the U.S. marshals for his own safety, but he returned voluntarily with 36 hours. He is also credited with overseeing construction of a new courthouse on St. Croix, completed in 1991. In April 2005, the governor of the Virgin Islands declared a Judge Brotman Day.

Brotman retired from the bench last September. One of his final actions, on Aug. 29, was to approve a settlement of a lawsuit alleging unconstitutional conditions in Virgin Islands prisons. That case, Carty v. DeJongh, 94:cv-78, was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1994 to remedy overcrowding, squalid conditions, fire safety hazards and deficient medical and mental health care. The comprehensive consent decree was reached after Brotman found the Virgin Islands government in contempt of court-ordered remedies four times over the past decade.

Brotman was bestowed the Herbert Harley Award from the American Judicature Society in 1994 in recognition for his services promoting the effective administration of justice. He received the William J. Brennan Jr. Award from the Association of the Federal Bar for the State of New Jersey, and the Special Recognition Award from the Trial Attorneys of New Jersey, both in 1975, and the John F. Gerry Award from the Camden County Bar Association in 2001.

Brotman felt a strong connection to the Vineland area. The nearby hamlet of Brotmanville was founded around the turn of the 20th century by his grandfather, Abraham Brotman, a Russian immigrant who moved his garment factory there from Brooklyn.

The funeral will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 25 at Beth Israel Synagogue in Vineland. Visitation will begin at 1 p.m.