Monday, March 17, 2008

new jersey family court loses a local champion and pioneer

i was lucky enough to know judge womack both during my family law clerkship and as an intern. when i first volunteered in paterson in the 90s with americorps VISTA to help foster teens age out of the state system, i often accompanied teens to court appearances in front of judge womack. he always let me speak on behalf of the teens to explain how they were thriving in our program. he listened to stories about their lives and understood the complications these teens faced in paterson without resources and families. he always considered other factors, deciding compassionately not reactively to their juvenile charges.

superior court, family division in passaic vicinage has lost a champion of justice and paterson grieves a local hero.

from today's herald news...

PATERSON — Judge Stephen Womack, the first African-American to sit on the bench in state Superior Court in Passaic County, died Saturday night at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center.

He was 65.

Womack died of complications from a cardiac event he suffered March 7, when he was found unconscious at his courthouse desk.

Upon receiving his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1968, Womack came to his adopted hometown to practice law. He would later involve himself in the community, which took great pride in his 1994 judicial appointment. Friends and colleagues described him Sunday as a strong, committed family man who was fair but tough in his rulings.

"Although he was judge in Family Court handling primarily juvenile offenders, he was keen in getting them rehabilitated, getting them off the antisocial track and getting them on a more productive track," said Superior Court Assignment Judge Robert Passero.

Stephen Womack, the judge's son, said his father was born and raised in Roanoke, Va., but came to Paterson at the suggestion of his cousin. Once here, he worked as an attorney at the Passaic County Legal Aid Society before joining Harry Lee Cornish, who later became a Paterson Municipal Court judge, in a law practice.

In 1976, Womack left private practice to serve as an assistant public defender in Union County. He held that post until his appointment to Superior Court, where he took up his duties overseeing juvenile cases.

"He loved Juvenile Court, because he thought he had an opportunity to do some good and change people's lives," said his colleague, Judge Richard M. Freid.

"He was not a pushover, that's for sure, but he had a huge heart," Freid said outside the Womack family home on Park Avenue.

When Gov. Christine Todd Whitman appointed Womack to the bench, Al Moody, who worked with Womack on a youth rehabilitation program, said he was "elated." The Rev. Albert Rowe of First Calvary Baptist Church called it a historic event for the local black community.

"He carried that mantle with the same dignity and same integrity that Thurgood Marshall carried his," Rowe said, referring to the nation's first black Supreme Court justice.

Womack's son said that honor was something his father was proud of, but in the end, he just wanted to do his job well.

"He took pride in his work," Stephen Womack said. "He was a great father. He was a great community figure without trying to be. There was no pretentiousness to it."

Womack was also a religious man, but he never wore his faith on his sleeve, according to Freid.

Womack told Freid that when he retired from the bench, he hoped to become a minister at the New Shiloh Baptist Church in Paterson, where he was a preacher and helped raise funds for a new roof.

Locally, he joined the Paterson Task Force for Community Action and served at least two years as the chairman of Paterson's Rent Leveling Board. After his appointment to the bench, he would speak to school and civic groups about the law and social problems.

"He was always willing to help a person," Passero said.

Womack is survived by his wife, Margaret; his children, Denise, Anita, Stephanie and Stephen; and a granddaughter, Ebony.

Staff Writer John Petrick contributed to this article.

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