The judge at the center of a confirmation battle between President Barack Obama and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has deep roots in New Jersey’s Jewish community.
Even as a religious school student at Congregation Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes, Judge Patty Shwartz displayed to peers the “clear moral compass” that led the president to nominate her to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
But along the way she has appeared to have found an opponent in Menendez, who last week invoked “senatorial courtesy” to derail the nomination. In a statement issued Jan. 6, Menendez said he interviewed Shwartz and found that she did not possess “substantive knowledge” on key issues.
He denied suggestions that his move was one of revenge over the role of her romantic partner, a senior prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, who led a corruption investigation of Menendez in 2006.
The White House is reportedly furious at their fellow Democrat. In October, when Obama nominated her for the Court of Appeals, he commented that the East Rutherford resident “has a long and impressive record of service and a history of handing down fair and judicious decisions.”
Obama, however, may not have been aware of just how long her “impressive record” is. Shwartz’s sister and a childhood friend both said that the 50-year-old judge has always displayed a quick mind and an acute sense of fairness.
“Patty was always very social, very smart and quick-witted, very respectful, and never mean-spirited,” said her older sister, Nancy Brown, an emergency room nurse at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Paterson. They have two brothers; a third sister passed away in 1997.
Growing up, all the Shwartz children helped out after school and on weekends at their parents’ fur and women’s clothing shop in Paterson. Their father, Harold “Hesh” Shwartz, inherited the business from his own father, who founded it in 1905. Their mother, Jean, worked alongside her husband for 50 years until the shop closed when the elder Shwartz daughter died.
“We were all brought up the same way, with the same work ethic,” Brown said. “I wish my mom and dad were around to see Patty’s accomplishments; they’d be busting. Dad was very bright and [he and Patty] used to hold intellectual conversations and laugh together.”
At her 2003 swearing-in ceremony as a magistrate judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, she expressed gratitude to her parents, who were still alive at the time.
(Shwartz was unable to speak for attribution for this article, explaining that “once a person is nominated, a person typically declines to participate in interviews out of respect for the process.”)
Always a smile
Warren County resident Michael Weiner, who went to religious school with Shwartz at Congregation Beth Shalom, said he and Shwartz were friends from the age of three, when his family moved into her neighborhood.
“I knew Patty was going to make her mark on the world,” said Weiner, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. “She always had a clear moral compass, even as a kid.”
As a Sunday school teacher at his local synagogue, Weiner said he can now truly appreciate Shwartz’s demeanor at school.
“Patty’s disposition is such that she would have a smile even during Hebrew school. Back in third or fourth grade, it’s hard to smile when you go into Hebrew school, but she always did.”
Brown added that her sister was the only one of the Shwartz girls to publicly mark becoming a bat mitzva.
“We all grew up with the [Jewish] customs and culture, and we went to temple as a family, but Patty was the only girl to be bat mitzva,” she said.
The siblings attended Camp Veritans in Wayne, sponsored by the YM-YWHA of North Jersey.
Shwartz graduated from Pompton Lakes High School, received her BA from Rutgers University, and was named Outstanding Woman Law Graduate of her class at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was editor of the Law Review. She worked as an associate at Pepper, Hamilton & Scheetz before serving as a law clerk to Harold A. Ackerman of the U.S. District Court for New Jersey from 1987 to 1989.
Shwartz then joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, where she prosecuted a wide range of criminal cases. Since becoming a magistrate judge, she has handled more than 4,000 civil and criminal cases.
Upon her appointment in 2003, U.S. Attorney (now Governor) Christopher Christie said Shwartz was “the hardest-working, most fair person” he had come across on the job and that she “really does care about making sure we do our job in a way that makes justice a reality.”
In 2008, Shwartz was ranked highly by federal court law practitioners in a survey about federal magistrates. One respondent described her as “awesomely hardworking.”
She is active locally, especially with students. She frequently speaks with visiting school groups, including at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and participated at a Pompton Lakes High School career day. She also teaches an evening skills course as an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law.
Few could speculate as to who or what would break the stalemate over her nomination.
A version of this article appeared in The Jewish Standard.