A go-to judge for tough N.J. issues

Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson at a hearing Tuesday on the Fort Lee lane-closure scandal. "She is . . . not affected by emotional issues or concerned with public relations," said a retired judge.
Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson at a hearing Tuesday on the Fort Lee lane-closure scandal. "She is . . . not affected by emotional issues or concerned with public relations," said a retired judge. (MEL EVANS / Getty Images)
Posted: March 14, 2014

A New Jersey home-foreclosure crisis of exponential proportions. The surging emotions surrounding the issue of same-sex marriage. The high-stakes political theater of the George Washington Bridge closure case.

All these courtroom dramas share one thing in common:

Their presiding judge, Mary C. Jacobson, of Superior Court's Mercer Vicinage, who, say those who know her style, does it her way.

That is, evenhanded, thorough, and prepared, with intelligence and a focus on the law.

"Judge Jacobson is the consummate judge, in my view," said Robert Lytle, a lawyer and Mercer County Bar Association officer. "She's got an exemplary demeanor. She has the intellect. She is extremely fair."

Many people in the state's legal community would agree.

"She's so bright and so hardworking and so sensitive," said Thomas Olivieri, a retired Hudson County judge who now does mediation and arbitration and, like Jacobson, grew up in Bayonne. "She's everything you want in a judge."

Jacobson, a 1974 graduate of Smith College and a 1978 graduate of New York University School of Law, has had a long legal career. She is married to business lawyer James Laskey and has three children.

From 1979 to 2001, she served in the state Attorney General's Office as a deputy assistant attorney general and an assistant attorney general. Before that, she was law clerk to Samuel Larner, judge of the Appellate Division, according to state judiciary spokeswomen.

One of the spokeswomen said Jacobson would not comment for this article.

In 2001, Jacobson was appointed to the bench by Gov. Christie Whitman, in the civil division in the Essex Vicinage. She moved to the general equity division and then, several months later, to the Mercer Vicinage, hearing civil and family cases. She served as presiding judge of the family division from 2009 to 2010, when she was named presiding judge of general equity in the Mercer Vicinage.

In 2010, with a housing crisis hitting the state and nation, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner appointed her to oversee foreclosure cases in the state, the spokeswomen said.

Amid likely massive irregularities on the part of certain mortgage lenders, many pending foreclosures, under Jacobson, were put on hold to be redone properly, recalled real estate lawyer Bruce Sattin.

"It was highly unusual" and "a sweeping remedy," he said. Jacobson, he noted, was not in the least grandstanding. Rather, she was applying the law in situations where it had not been followed in a widespread way.

"She's very methodical, very bright, very well-prepared," Sattin said.

She focuses on the law and applies it with a strict interpretation, according to Neil Shuster, a retired judge who served with her in Mercer County.

"I would say she is the complete professional as a judge," said Shuster, who now does mediation. "She is someone who is not affected by emotional issues or concerned with public relations."

Those qualities served her well in September when, as the assigning - head - judge in the Mercer Vicinage, it fell upon her to rule in the highly charged, widely watched veto of a same-sex-marriage bill. In New Jersey, cases involving the state have traditionally been heard in the Mercer Vicinage by the assigning judge.

On Sept. 27, Jacobson issued her decision: that same-sex couples, by not being able to marry, were denied their civil rights and were being harmed. She ordered marriages to begin Oct. 21.

The Christie administration, intending to fight the decision, sought a stay, which the state Supreme Court unanimously denied. With weddings beginning, the administration dropped its appeal.

Lawrence Lustberg, one of the attorneys who brought the case for marriage equality, said Jacobson was a careful judge who encouraged a full airing of all points in a case.

"She gives breathing room to every argument on both sides," Lustberg said. "Certain judges give certain arguments the back of the hand. She gives nothing the back of the hand."

It looks as if the same may be true in the bridge-closure case.

Earlier this week, Jacobson asked both sides in the case for additional information before she would make her decision.


INSIDE

Ex-aide to Christie wants all evidence against him. A2

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno reveals scope of the bridge inquiry. A2


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rgiordano@phillynews.com

@ritagiordano

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