Oh, I’m so sad. The judge I clerked for following law school, Sylvia Pressler, just died. She was only 75 and had only retired a few years earlier. Of course, she worked until the last possible moment a judge could until mandatory retirement under New Jersey law.

She was head of the Appellate Division (New Jersey’s intermediate appeals court), and had a reputation for being very intelligent, very formidable (but sweet!), and very liberal. She’s responsible for a good many important civil rights decisions, involving mainly gender equality, sexuality equality, and the death penalty and due process. Apparently, if I’d been born a New Jersey resident, I would only have been able to play Little League (as I did in Phoenix) because of her. (Btw, New Yorkers just love to condescend to New Jerseyians, but Hoboken, you know, is the birthplace of baseball… and Frank Sinatra. And, New Jersey law tends to be far more progressive).

I remember the year I was there our flashy, press-attention-heavy due process case involved a high-school’s extreme last-minute decision to prevent a student from graduating because she’d gotten into some kind of vague fight with another student earlier that day. The appeal was emergent (since it needed to be decided right then, the graduation ceremony being just about to happen), and Judge Pressler determined in a few precious moments that since the school had failed to give the student a hearing beforehand, they’d violated her due process rights. The student graduated. Her photo was in the paper the next day waving about her diploma, wearing a huge smile. The school board was not happy, but the student and her family sure were. Judge Pressler was always a champion of the underdog.

The several judges who shared our Hackensack building would often take all of us law clerks out to lunch together. Judge Pressler was one of only two female judges (I think I remember her saying she was the only woman in her entire class at Rutgers Law), and by far the most liberal, and she managed to be both sweetly likable, and formidable (she was the head of the entire Court after all). She’d start going off on some conservative politician (usually Giuliani :)) and the male judges would sit there biting their hands, dying to say something but too intimidated to speak up. It was great — we were in awe!

According to the Times, she died at her summer house in Sparta, which I remember from our end-of-the-year judicial panel party (and which I always thought sounded very balletic). It’s out on this beautiful lake, where there were many swans. I remember approaching one (which I’d never seen in person before) and realizing they’re beautiful and elegant, but if you get too close and they get threatened — especially if they have babies around — they can be very aggressive, which I guess makes sense.

Anyway, I was very honored to have clerked for her. Below is a photo of her swearing me into the New Jersey Bar — one very cool thing she’d do for her law clerks (as did most of the other New Jersey judges; in New York, I got sworn in along with about a thousand other people in a gigantic room by a nameless, faceless someone).

She has a son, Noah, and a daughter, Jessica, who is a writer. I think Jessica writes for New York Magazine.


  1. She sounds like a great lady. I'm sorry that you'll be missing her.

  2. Thank you, Liz.

  3. Is she related to Pressler and Pressler?
    A very corrupt law firm.
    Let’s hope not
    May she watch down upon them with piercing eyes of disgust.

  4. I don’t think so. I think she only practiced law very briefly at the beginning of her career; she’d been a judge for decades.

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