Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Completed Journey

Patrick Francis Xavier Fitzpatrick died on January 15, 2011. He had an apparent preference for the date - and who could blame him inasmuch as it was his birthday. Maybe he was just being economical - saving his family the cost of carving two different dates into his headstone. Now all they need is one date and two years. Judge Fitz was seventy-one on the day he died.

Judge Fitz retired from the bench in Bergen County in 2005. Truth be told, other than receiving an announcement that he had entered private practice upon his retirement I cannot think of a single conversation I had with him after he retired as a Judge. But during the time that he was on the bench in Bergen County he was an invaluable teacher. He was cantankerous, opinionated and occasionally outrageous. One had to learn to accept that Judge Fitz operated according to his own set of rules, which included among them chain-smoking Camel cigarettes in his chambers.......in a no-smoking building. And being Irish, he could at times appear to the uninitiated to be more than a little gruff or profane. Over the course of the years that I appeared before him I was called a, "Stupid Irish son of a bitch" too many times to count. I took it as a term of endearment. Because it was.

My favorite memory of Judge Fitz is the Friday afternoon that he called my office looking for me. I was out at a deposition and Judge Fitz had called my office to follow up on a case that had been the subject of a Settlement Conference before him earlier that week. Gracie telephoned me in a panic to tell me that, "Joe Fitz" had called looking for me and needed me to call him back. While I did not know who Joe Fitz was as soon as she read me the phone number I realized it was Judge Fitz. Not wanting to keep a member of the Judiciary waiting, when I asked the other attorneys at the deposition if I could have five minutes to contact His Honor, they happily obliged.

About ten seconds into the conversation I realized that Judge Fitz was about as concerned about the case that I had appeared before him on that week as was I, which is to say not at all. After asking me if the case had yet settled (because one does not settle almost thirty thousand civil cases while a Judge without being willing to do a little leg work) he asked me what my wife and I were doing that weekend. It turns out he called simply to chat. And we did. We spent about five minutes on the phone until I told him that I was feeling badly about leaving all of the other lawyers on my case cooling their heels at a Friday afternoon deposition while I was bullshitting with him. He laughed and told me to tell them it was their own fault if no Judge they knew ever felt like picking up the phone just to talk to them. He was kidding of course. His laughter punctuated the remark. And then he was gone.

Hearing the news that Judge Fitz has died really filled me with a sense of loss. He is a Judge around whom I grew up as a lawyer - came of age if you will. He was not the tea of choice for everyone. No one is. He did what he did in the manner in which he did it because it worked for him and to him it made the most judicious use of the system of civil justice of which he was a part. His courtroom was one of my favorite places to spend time as a lawyer. I never was hurt while there and I do not know of any lawyer who was.

Rest in Peace Judge Fitz. It is indeed well-earned.

-AK

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