When asked about his prolific YouTube presence and singing avocation, Breland, 51, chuckled. "It's a little unique. . . I guess I'm going to be the singing judge," he said in a short phone interview last month.
For the last seven years, Breland and his wife have been singing spiritual songs under the name One Flesh. He is the deep-throated tenor, belting out songs that praise the Lord while revealing an impressive range. Tonya Breland, a former principal of the Evergreen School in Woodbury, Gloucester County, is the soprano, reaching notes that soar. The two have been married 24 years.
In one online video, their two children, Daniel and Gianya, join in for a harmonic rendition of Carol of the Bells, released last Christmas. Daniel, who sings bass, just completed his freshman year in college as a business major. Gianya, a college graduate, is a teacher's assistant and sings alto.
Gerard and Tonya Breland also have sold about 600 CDs of their singing. "Music is a big part of our lives," he said.
As judge, Breland likely will have to listen to less harmonious testimony in family disputes and other legal matters.
In an e-mailed statement, Gaetano T. Gregory, the acting Hudson County prosecutor, said Breland is "a talented and experienced trial attorney who has distinguished his career with a keen sense of justice and fairness. His elevation to the bench will be a tremendous loss for our Office, however he will be a great asset to the New Jersey Judiciary and to the citizens of this State."
Jonathan Leath, the pastor at Destiny Church, also praised Breland's sense of fairness. "They are getting a great individual who will really provide a fair and honest judgment. . . He's also a very talented guy and multidimensional, which I kind of like about him."
The seven-year-old nondenominational church, which has about 110 members, rents an auditorium at a Moorestown middle school, after previously holding services at schools in Burlington Township and Willingboro.
Breland, a Democrat, says that his faith is important to him and that he enjoys writing hymns when he is feeling inspired. But he also loves the law. His parents were both lawyers and may have influenced his decision to follow that career path. He received a law degree from Georgetown University Law School in 1988, three years after earning a bachelor's degree in political science from Howard University.
His mother, Joan, now deceased, had been a municipal judge in Cleveland, where he grew up. "I remember coming to her courtroom when I was an adolescent and she would explain certain legal principles, like contributory and comparative negligence," he said. "I think I understand it better now." Breland called her a "trailblazer" saying she was the first African American woman to be named municipal judge in Cleveland, in 1974.
As a prosecutor, Breland also made waves. He tried a case involving warrantless searches of vehicles that led to a precedent-setting state Supreme Court decision, State of New Jersey v. Cooke, in 2000. At various times, he also supervised a trial team, the Special Victims Unit, and the Insurance Fraud Unit, which had prosecuted one of the state's largest "staged-accident rings" and involved runners and doctors. In addition, he was an instructor at the Jersey City Police Academy, where he taught recruits about search-and-seizure procedures.
He and Tonya met in 1987; they were both in the Howard University Gospel Choir. Tonya, 45, who also graduated from Howard, owns an educational consulting business that provides professional development for teachers and tutoring for students.
Breland said that he went on to sing with a Hudson County Courthouse choir known as the Judiciary Voices in Unity. He now directs that 15-member choir, which performs for judges and lawyers on Law Day, at Drug Court graduation ceremonies, and at memorial services for deceased members of the bar.
But soon, he may have to devote more of his time to listening, in a courtroom, rather than arguing cases and performing music. "I just hope to do the best I can and be fair and just in my role as a judge," he said. "I have been interested in becoming a judge for the last seven or eight years, after a sitting judge asked me if I had ever thought about it. It's something I aspired to."