Insights: Women’s History Month 2018


Women’s History Month is a great opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of women in all areas of life. Hello, I’m Union Vicinage Assignment Judge Karen Cassidy. As chair of the Supreme Court Committee on Women in the Courts, I’m delighted to introduce this video about some of the women who have left their mark on New Jersey’s legal system. Their contributions have had a positive impact on case law that is used to guide lower court decisions, on the management of our court system, on the communities, institutions and businesses affected by their actions, and even on our state Constitution. One of my personal heroes is Supreme Court Justice Marie Garibaldi. She was the first woman appointed to the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1982.  Fourteen years later, I had the great honor of joining her on the court and I could not have asked for a more wonderful colleague. Her intelligence and her knowledge about the law were impressive, of course, but what I enjoyed most about her was her ability to relate to people. She was a pleasure to work with, a warm friend, and a caring mentor who stayed connected to her former law clerks throughout their careers.   She knew that the decisions we made on the bench could have a profound impact on peoples’ lives and she understood the burden she carried as the first woman on the court.   Yet, Justice Garibaldi had planned to go to business school after graduating college in 1956. Because business schools were not admitting women then, she attended law school, where she was one of just 12 women in her class at Columbia University.  She told me that it was very difficult for women to obtain jobs at law firms in New York at that time so she studied tax law and worked in a government position before she entered private practice.  Later, she became the first woman to serve as president of the New Jersey State Bar Association.   At every stage of her career, Marie Garibaldi found her way and forged a path for other women to follow. When we are talking about New Jersey women who made history, we should remember Mary Philbrook. Mary Philbrook became the first woman to be admitted to the New Jersey bar and that was in 1895. She was initially denied admission to the bar, but when she won that law license she put it to work for a variety of worthy causes. She worked for Legal Aid. She advocated for child labor laws. She advocated for juvenile justice, and she also helped further the suffrage movement working with New Jersey’s own, Alice Paul and she was a founder of the New Jersey College for Women, which we now know as Douglass College. In addition, Mary played an important role in crafting New Jersey’s 1947 Constitution. She insisted that our framers replace the word “men,” with the word “persons.” That’s a simple change in language but it was truly significant. Because it meant that the protections guaranteed by our state constitution would apply to women as well as men. Mary Philbrook is a role model not only for New Jersey’s women lawyers, but for all members of our profession. I had the great honor of serving on the Court during the administration of Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1996. She was not only the first woman to serve as Chief Justice in New Jersey, she was also the first woman to serve as our state’s Attorney General. Chief Justice Poritz oversaw the unification of our courts into a single statewide Judiciary, expanded the drug court program statewide, and reduced case backlogs to help ensure the prompt resolution of court cases. She appointed the first female Assignment Judge in the state’s history, and she increased diversity in all respects and at all levels of the judiciary. Equally important, Chief Justice Poritz wrote many groundbreaking court decisions. Her opinions covered important topics affecting lives of the citizens of this state. Such as affordable housing, workplace discrimination, marriage equality, public school funding, and election law. During our years on the court, we worked on hundreds of cases together, and through it all, and especially on the tough issues, especially on the tough issues, Chief Justice Poritz led the Court through the power of her intellect and her ability to build consensus. She has earned a prominent place in the legal history of our state, regardless of gender. Shirley Tolentino was the first African American woman named to the Superior Court. She began her career as a high school Latin and English teacher, attending law school at night. She was the only African American woman in her law school class. In 1976, she became the first African American woman to serve as a full-time municipal court judge in New Jersey, serving in her beloved hometown of Jersey City. In 1981, she then became the first African American woman to serve as a municipal court presiding judge. Before and after her appointment to the Superior Court in 1984, Judge Tolentino was a champion of equal rights and a tireless community activist. Visitors to Jersey City will find a post office and a courthouse plaza named in her honor. The first time, the very first time I saw her serving as a Municipal Court Judge and seeing how she controlled the court and administered justice, changed my career path, becoming a lawyer and now a Superior Court Judge. One of our most admired trailblazers is Appellate Judge Sylvia Pressler. She was the second woman ever to serve on the Appellate Division of the NJ Superior Court, and, in 1997, she became the first woman named presiding judge of the appellate division. Judge Pressler wrote thousands of court opinions as a judge but one of her most memorable decisions occurred before she joined the Judiciary. As a hearing officer for the NJ Division on Civil Rights, she ruled in 1973 that a 12-year-old girl from Hoboken, NJ must be allowed to play on a Little League baseball team in spite of attempts by National Little League officials to have her removed. These are just a few of the pioneering women who have made important contribution to the law and the legal system in New Jersey. Thank you for taking the time to learn more about these women as we honor their contributions during Women’s History Month.

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