FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Florence Nathan
April 29, 2010
The New Jersey State Bar Foundation's highest award--the prestigious Medal of Honor--will be conferred on the Hon. James R. Zazzali, retired Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and the Hon. Renee Jones Weeks, retired Superior Court judge, for their outstanding service to New Jersey's legal legacy. The award, given each year to candidates who have made exemplary contributions to improving the justice system, will be presented at the Foundation's Annual Medal of Honor Awards Reception Dinner on Monday, June 7, at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick.
On learning of the award, Justice Zazzali stated, "I'm flattered, but any Medal of Honor should go to my family, friends and colleagues who made it all possible-and who put up with me. I am simply a lucky guy."
One of the state's most admired jurists, Justice Zazzali was appointed to the New Jersey Supreme Court by Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in 2000. His opinions, as the New Jersey Law Journal once noted, reflect his commitment to fairness for the underdog, particularly children, the elderly, the poor and workers. In 2006, Gov. Jon Corzine named him Chief Justice. When he stepped down in 2007 at age 70, the mandatory retirement age for judges in New Jersey, he had spent nearly a half century committed in large part to public service.
"Justice Zazzali," said Bar Foundation President Richard Badolato, "is universally respected, as evidenced by his appointments by governors of both parties, and well deserving of the Foundation's highest honor. His longstanding commitment to ensuring the rights of New Jersey's citizens, the dedication he displayed on the state's highest court, his continuing commitment to needed reforms and his fruitful efforts to mobilize the Bar and the Bench to strengthen their working relationship make the Foundation proud to award him the Medal of Honor."
Born in Newark, he attended Seton Hall Preparatory School, graduated from Georgetown College, and received his law degree from Georgetown Law Center. Rather than go north to a law firm, he spent three years in the South representing workers, dovetailing with the then-growing civil rights movement.
He returned to New Jersey to clerk with the Hon. Lawrence A. Whipple and served as an Assistant Essex County Prosecutor, later becoming Chief of the Appeals Division of that office. As court-approved receiver, he administered Bloomfield College in the 1970's. From 1974 through 1982 he and his brother served as General Counsel to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. In the 1980's the United States District Court appointed him special master to investigate, report and recommend jail reforms in the Essex, Monmouth and Bergen County jails, and in the Newark Street Jail, a landmark undertaking that he stewarded for ten years. He served as Attorney General of New Jersey under Gov. Brendan Byrne in 1981-1982.
Before ascending to the Supreme Court, he served as Commissioner and Chair of the State Commission of Investigation, all while maintaining a private practice in the Newark law firm started by his late father, now Zazzali, Fagella, Nowak, Kleinbaum & Friedman.
He also served as Chair of the Congressional Superfund Study Group; Chair of the Judicial Labor Relations Task Force; member and Vice-Chair of the Disciplinary Review Board; Chair of the Committee on Minority Participation in the Courts; and member and Vice-Chair of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct. At the request of the United States State Department, he was a member of delegations to several United Nations conferences in Paris and Geneva.
Justice Zazzali was an adjunct professor at Seton Hall Law School, an associate editor of the New Jersey Law Journal, and a contributor to numerous magazines, newspapers and law journals. He won the Georgetown University Law Center's Paul Dean Award and was the recipient of that university's John Carroll Award, the highest award bestowed on alumni by that institution.
As Robert A. Honecker, Jr., president of the Monmouth Bar Association, put it: "We nominated Chief Justice Zazzali [for the Medal of Honor] not only because he is among the best and the brightest, but also because he is a man who gives of himself to his profession, his family and his community."
Since his retirement from the bench, Justice Zazzali has become Of Counsel to the Gibbons and the Zazzali law firms. He and his wife, the former Eileen Fitzsimmons, are parents of Mara, James Jr., Robert, Courtney, and Kevin.
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"I am very humbled and pleased," said Judge Weeks, "to receive the Medal of Honor from the New Jersey State Bar Foundation. It was quite a surprise. I have always respected the extensive outreach that the Bar Foundation has done and the significant impact that the Foundation has made for the benefit of the community throughout the state of New Jersey."
Firsts are nothing new to Judge Renee Jones Weeks, who retired last July after 36 years of service to the legal community, the last 20 on the Superior Court bench. She was the first African-American woman to preside in New Jersey's General Equity and Probate Court as well as Essex County's first African-American appointed to that court. She also became the first black woman assistant general counsel at Prudential Insurance. Among other innovations, she was a co-incorporator of the Garden State Bar Association and the first African-American trustee of the Essex County Bar Association. What's more, she co-founded and was the first president of the Association of Black Women Lawyers. Throughout her career, she worked in the cause of equality for minorities and women in law.
"The New Jersey State Bar Foundation," said its president Richard Badolato, "is delighted to bestow its highest honor on Judge Weeks for her distinguished career on the bench, her trailblazing efforts in helping open the doors for many other minority lawyers, and her unceasing efforts on behalf of the Essex County Bar Association. In her outstanding legal career, she has served in each position with integrity and excellence. She epitomizes the qualities a Medal of Honor recipient should have."
A Washington, D.C. native, she attended high school at the Academy of Notre Dame near Capitol Hill, graduated from Ursuline College in Ohio in 1970 and received her law degree from Rutgers-Newark Law School in 1973. A career in law had been on her mind since her teen years, when she learned about the US Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision striking down "separate but equal" schools for white and black students.
Obtaining interviews at first proved elusive, which she attributed to being both a woman and a minority in the early 1970s. After a lengthy job search, she began her career with the state Attorney General's office, as a Deputy Attorney General from 1970-1973. From there she went on to become an Assistant General Counsel at Prudential Insurance and also an Acting Newark Municipal Court Judge.
Nominated by Gov. Thomas Kean to the Superior Court bench, she was appointed on July 14, 1989, and has served in the Family Part, Criminal Part, Civil Part, and General Equity and Probate Part. She served in Union County for 18 months and in Essex County for the remainder of her service on the bench. She served as Lead Judge, Non-Dissolution Unit, Family Part, Superior Court of New Jersey (Essex Vicinage). Prior to her retirement last year for health reasons, she served as a Judge in the General Equity and Probate Part of the Chancery Division, Superior Court of New Jersey (Essex Vicinage). During her tenure on the bench, she served on numerous Supreme Court committees including Family Practice, Minority Concerns Implementation, Domestic Violence Working Group and the Judges-Surrogates' Liaison Committee. In addition, she was a member of the Conference of General Equity Judges, and of the Probate Judges' Subcommittee.
Judge Weeks took it upon herself to see that future lawyers, especially young women of color, had access to organizations that supported their aims while enhancing the profession. In 1975 she co-founded and was the first President of the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey. She served as vice president of the National Bar Association; president of its Women's Division; and financial secretary, chair-elect and chair of the National Bar Association's Judicial Council.
Among her many accolades, she received the Woman of Distinction Award from the Essex Club of the Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs Inc., the Amadeus Rappe Award from Ursuline College, and the Professional Lawyer of the Year Award from the New Jersey Commission on Professionalism in the Law. Last year in recognition of her achievements, the Association of Black Women Lawyers named its Past Presidents Award the "Honorable Judge Weeks Award of Excellence" and conferred it upon Judge Weeks herself.
She is a frequent lecturer at law schools and other legal education programs. Health permitting, she plans to do volunteer teaching at a law school clinical program. In addition, she plans to continue to serve as a member of the Alumni Committee, assisting the Minority Students Program at Rutgers-Newark Law School.
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The Foundation's Annual Medal of Honor Awards Reception Dinner begins at 6 p.m. and is open to everyone. For information, please contact Florence Nathan at the Bar Foundation at 732-937-7518 or mail a check for $75 per person made payable to the New Jersey State Bar Foundation, to the New Jersey State Bar Foundation Awards Reception, One Constitution Square, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-1520, no later than Tuesday, June 1.
Founded in 1958, the New Jersey State Bar Foundation is the educational and philanthropic arm of the New Jersey State Bar Association. The Bar Foundation's mission is to promote public understanding of the law through a free, comprehensive public education program. Among its activities, the Foundation conducts seminars and conflict resolution training, publishes materials, operates a videotape loan library and speakers bureau, and coordinates elementary, middle and high school mock trial competitions.