As a New Jersey bankruptcy judge, Morris Stern developed a reputation for dispensing justice and comedy in the same breath.
“He had a unique combination of supreme intellect and humor,” said attorney Michael Sirota, who appeared before him multiple times, and chairs the restructuring group at law firm Cole Schotz.
Sirota said Stern would often say, “ ‘Thanks you for your argument, which was very well done,’ and then he would rule against you.”
Stern died Wednesday at his Millburn home after battling cancer. He was 72.
Born in Newark on March 31, 1941, to Regina and Irving Stern, he attended Weequahic High School. In 1962, Stern earned a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from Lafayette College.
In 1965 he graduated with honors from Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, where he was an editor of the Law Review.
After law school Stern clerked for the Hon. Robert Matthew in Superior Court in Hudson County.
For 30 years, Stern was a partner at Stern, Dubrow and Marcus, where he specialized in commercial law. As an adjunct professor at his law school alma mater, Stern taught bankruptcy and commercial law.
“He was funny but as articulate and thorough as you could possibly be,” said Jim Waldron, who was a Stern student in 1988 and is now clerk of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey. “He somehow managed to make it understandable.”
In 2001, Stern was appointed by the Third Circuit Judicial Council as a judge in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey.
On the bench, Stern was known for mastering complex legal issues and delivering thoroughly researched opinions, said Judge Michael Kaplan, one of his colleagues in bankruptcy court.
Once, he wrote an opinion around 70 pages on whether a judge could eliminate surcharges added to traffic tickets when the debtor had filed personal bankruptcy, Kaplan said.
“Seventy pages on anything is a lot to write,” Kaplan said. “You can take a lot of opinions and put them together and they won’t be 70 pages.”
Stern also presided over a number of high-profile cases.
Most notably, he tackled a Bayonne Medical Center bankruptcy case in 2007, and St. Mary’s Hospital’s bankruptcy in 2009. In both cases he had to see the medical facilities through bankruptcy and approve new owners that would satisfy debtors, state regulators and the communities.
“These cases are very difficult,” Kaplan said. “They are much different than a retail chapter 11.”
Those who keep up with celebrity news more than developments in the legal world might know Stern better as the judge who presided over Real Housewives of New Jersey reality star Teresa Giudice’s bankruptcy.
“I’m sure they got a fair shake but that’s not a good indication of his work,” Sirota said. “He’s a brilliant man.”
By Naomi Nix