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Remarks by Professor Diana Sclar at Hon. Morris Stern '65 Memorial and Dedication

June 23, 2014 – 

On Friday, June 20, 2014 family, friends and judicial and academic colleagues of the Honorable Morris (Mickey) Stern, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, District of New Jersey, gathered at the Newark courthouse to memorialize Judge Stern and announce the naming of the Morris Stern U.S. Bankruptcy Court/Rutgers–Newark Law School Pro Bono Project. 

Judge Stern, who died on February 12, 2014, was a 1965 graduate of Rutgers School of Law–Newark. Before his appointment to the bench in 2001, he spent 30 years as a partner in the law firm of Stern, Dubrow and Marcus, where he specialized in commercial litigation and transactions. During that time he also regularly taught Bankruptcy and Commercial Law as an Adjunct and Visiting Professor at the law school.

Hon. Rosemary Gambardella ’79, Judge of the Bankruptcy Court, welcomed the guests. Remarks were delivered by Professor Diana Sclar, the Hon. Donald Steckroth of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and Michael Sirota, member at Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard P.A.

Judge Morris Stern
Honorable Morris Stern ’65
March 31, 1941 – February 12, 2014

Following are Professor Sclar’s remarks:

I knew Mickey Stern for 40 years. In all that time I don’t think I ever saw him without a smile on his face. We met in 1974 when I had been a faculty member for a year and he had just joined the adjunct faculty. Yet when I think of Mickey I still feel like a kid, probably because his greeting to me over the years, whether at the law school, at law school social events, or at the Maplewood Kings was always the same – “Hey Kiddo.”

Mickey was lucky enough to have had Allan Axelrod, to whom he referred as Ax, as one of his mentors. I was lucky enough to have had an office next door to Axelrod and so I saw Mickey regularly because he had to pass my office whenever he came to chat with Axelrod.

Before I continue with my own recollections, I want to read some words about Mickey from Peter Simmons, who is unable to be here today. 

Mickey (in 38 years, I never heard anyone call him “Morris”) Stern was one of our most memorable colleagues at the law school. His brilliance, practical wisdom and grace earned respect and appreciation from all who knew him. 

Over the years he was a frequent participant in various law school seminars and pro-bono activities – most recently attempting to enlist students to assist in efforts to deal with foreclosures in New Jersey. 

Those of us who believe that the law is both a learned and humane profession have lost a true friend and leader. 

I had the good fortune, during the past several years, to breakfast once a month with Mickey at a local diner early Saturday mornings. I believe he fit me in to his busy schedule because I agreed to a 7:20 AM pick-up time – an unpopular hour with many of his friends, as he put it. Being seated with Mickey was always memorable because of the number of judges, lawyers, neighbors (past and present) and friends who would stop by our table to share a brief greeting with Mickey -- even at that early hour. 

I have never had a deep interest in bankruptcy even though I took a class called “Creditors’ Rights” in the early 1950s; my motivation for electing that course was that it was taught by a favored professor. – [And here I interject. In the early 1960s I took “Creditor’s Remedies” from the same favored teacher. At Rutgers, sometimes known as “The People’s Electric Law School, we call the equivalent course “Debtor and Creditor”]. 

Back to Peter. Experiencing Mickey’s enthusiasm when he opined about current cases (no names!) persuaded me how much I missed about contemporary social problems and public policy by devoting 50 years to teaching estates in land and related first year Property topics. Conversations with Mickey – he the tactful teacher and I his ardent student – displayed his breadth of knowledge, compassion and wisdom. 

The law school building is named “The Center for Law and Justice.” That title epitomizes Mickey’s professional (and personal) commitments: the law as a guide to ordering civil society and as an engine of social justice. To paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr: the responsibility of the legal system is to “establish justice in a sinful world.” I believe Mickey would have agreed with that statement, if only as a starting point for an enlightening and enjoyable discussion. Admittedly, this is a far cry from “calling balls and strikes” which some describe as the appropriate judicial role. Fortunately, Mickey was seldom constrained by such conventional wisdom. 

What Peter didn’t say about those diner breakfasts was that initially Mickey always ordered the same thing – oatmeal – despite Peter’s urging that he try the Pumpkin Pecan Pancakes. Although Mickey ultimately varied his diner breakfasts, he never did order Peter’s favorite pancakes. 

Mickey taught Basic and Advanced Commercial Law courses, which included the UCC and Bankruptcy. Although students are wary of “statutory courses” and many are reluctant to take early classes, they flocked to him in large numbers. Often he taught classes of well over 100 students – at 8:30 in the morning. 

Mickey was so popular that in 1982 the students elected him Faculty Speaker at graduation, the first adjunct faculty member to be accorded such honor. 

As with graduation speeches generally, the message he sought to impart probably has been forgotten by most who heard it; certainly I don’t remember it. But Ron Chen and I both remember the punch line to the joke – really a shaggy dog story – he told that day. Ron, who had just finished his second year, was at graduation because he then was the incoming Editor in Chief of the Law Review and was giving certificates to the graduating members. 

After relating a long and convoluted story, featuring one character who was from Czechoslovakia, Mickey finally reached his conclusion – “A Czech is not an assignment.” Most of the audience was completely mystified, but the graduates -- the majority of whom had learned about negotiable instruments from Mickey – whooped with glee. 

Thinking that Mickey had told a story well known among a certain group of lawyers, Ron and I have Googled that punch line in search of the rest of the joke – but to no avail. The logical conclusion is that Mickey probably made it up himself. We both hope that he told the joke to someone here, so that we finally can learn what came before. 

The next time Mickey addressed a broad law school audience was when he gave the 2011 Allan Axelrod Lecture. The title reveals the seriousness of the topic: “Upheaval in New Jersey Home Ownership: Mortgage Foreclosures and Bankruptcy.” Yet Mickey was able to bring his quintessential deft touch to his presentation. Instead of making a speech, he performed a three-act play, with introduction and epilogue, in which he portrayed all the characters.

Unfortunately the law school didn’t record his presentation but I had a hunch he probably had prepared notes. So I called Ronnie Stern, described what I wanted, and sure enough within a few hours she found what is too comprehensive to be referred to as just “notes.” She has graciously allowed me to borrow five color coded folders labeled “Intro,” “I,” “II,” “III” and “Epi.” Each folder contains background research, along with the script. 

Acts I, II and III take place in a Newark Bar, where a financially overextended Homeowner, who bought a house in 2000 for $600,000, is describing his plight to the Bartender, who is commenting. The differences between Acts I and II are that they involve different Homeowners, both of whom are contemplating filing for bankruptcy, and that the first act takes place in 2006, during the height of the housing bubble, whereas the second act takes place in 2008, after the bubble has burst. All the facts are the same but for one important exception – in Act I the Homeowner’s house is then worth $1,000,000 and in Act II the house is then worth only $375,000. 

When Mickey needed to introduce some legal information into the dialogue he played two other denizens of the bar – Barfly and my favorite, Butinsky, who at one point begin arguing with each other about the law. 

Act III, the saddest act, takes place a year after Act II. As the Act II Homeowner tells the Bartender, his house was subject to foreclosure, his wife lost her job, his child had uninsured medical bills, and he filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition. To save his home he wants to make an arrangement with his mortgage lender, but the mortgage servicer has merged at least three times and the electronic records are all screwed up. The Bartender’s only response is “oy!” 

The play ends inconclusively for the Homeowner. Mickey concluded his presentation with the Epilogue. In typical law professor fashion it contains only questions – 16 to be exact –but no answers. 

I have spent perhaps too much time on Mickey’s play, but for me it captures his essence as a teacher. I learned so much from him that day about a difficult and important subject because he made clear how the law has an impact on the lives of real people. No wonder his students adored him. 

But enough about the law. Except to mention the hour Mickey graciously spent on the phone with me explaining Stern v. Marshall so I could teach it to my Federal Courts class. 

I’ll end by recounting Mickey’s significant contribution to the Town of Maplewood during the single term he served on the Town Council, before he decamped for Millburn. As in many towns along a train line and with inadequate parking, Maplewood was engaged in a dispute about whether to build a multistory parking garage near the station. Mickey’s unique alternative proposal was to develop a jitney system in order to reduce, rather than increase traffic around the station. What at first seemed like an unrealistic idea – people would never give up their cars – skeptically was given a tryout. And it worked. Now Maplewood has an extensive and successful jitney system, which some other towns either have adopted or are studying. I think of Mickey every time I’m picking someone up at the Maplewood Train Station and see the jitneys lined up and the numerous commuters boarding them after the train has arrived. And I always will continue to think of him.