By: Barry Szaferman
As Published in the Mercer County Bar Association Winter 2022 Newsletter
Judge Fitzpatrick (fondly known as “Fitz”) retired this past August as the Presiding Judge of the Family Part in Mercer County. Her retirement, after 40 years as a lawyer and Judge, is well deserved. It made me think, however, how fortunate family law attorneys practicing in Mercer County have been to have had a presiding judge who saw it all as an attorney and was able to bring that experience to the benefit of her fellow family law judges and the many attorneys and litigants who appeared before her. Former Chief Justice Robert Wilentz established a general rule, still in effect, to rotate Judges as part of an effort to bring different experiences and backgrounds to different parts of the Superior Court. Fitz was a notable exception to this general rule for good reason.
First, some background. Before being appointed to the Bench in 2010, Fitz practiced family law for 27 years. First with Larry O’Hara, Esquire, an aggressive attorney, who certainly influenced her, but Fitz remained her own person. After a few years, Fitz started her own practice, where she balanced her practical approach to resolving issues with the occasional need to be aggressive to protect the interests of her clients. She recognized that in most instances her clients wanted to settle their cases in a way that was fair to the family unit and especially the children. As
I think of the cases I handled with Fitz, I am reminded not only of how effective she was at settling most cases, but also that she was willing to go to trial when necessary.
As a trial attorney, Fitz always kept it simple and hammered home the points that were effective for her client. She knew that Judges do not want extraneous testimony. She had an uncanny ability to read the Judge and know which arguments to emphasize. Equally important, Fitz knew how to settle a complicated case. I remember handling a case with her shortly before she was elevated to the bench where because the parties had interests in multiple complex businesses, settlement required a combination of creativity and practicality. Fitz brought those attributes to the negotiating table and after a number of sessions the case was settled in a manner fair to the parties and their children. Fitz was always sensitive to the best interests of the children, especially when special needs children were involved.
Fitz brought this same talent to the bench. When a case had to be tried or a Motion argued, she expected the attorneys to avoid extraneous testimony and repetitive arguments. It was always evident during Motion hearings that Fitz had carefully read the papers, including the relevant exhibits. Of course, Fitz had seen it all as an attorney, and attorneys appearing before her knew, or should have known, not to make unreasonable arguments.
Fitz had a special talent for helping lawyers resolve difficult cases. As a Judge, with the consent of the litigants and lawyers, she was always willing to roll up her sleeves and bring her creativity and practicality to the resolution of intractable issues. She gave litigants the opportunity to express their views directly to her in an informal setting. She then effectively explained her recommendations for settlement, making it clear that the litigant was entitled to a full trial and that her final decision might differ from her recommendations.
During her long career, Fitz received many honors, including the 2006 Mercer County Professional Lawyer of the Year award. She was President of the Mercer County Bar Association in 2002. She served on various Supreme Court Committees and brought her considerable experience to improving the practice of law for family lawyers. She was an exemplar of a woman who did it all. She pursued her impressive career while enjoying a fulfilling and happy life as a wife, mother and most recently as a doting grandmother.
I know I speak for the family lawyers of Mercer County in wishing Fitz the best in her retirement. We look forward to spending time with her at various Bar functions and learning how she will continue to contribute for the benefit of the Bar and society as a whole.
Barry Szaferman is the Co-Managing Partner of Szaferman Lakind. Heavily involved in the Mercer County legal community for over 40 years, Barry focuses his practice on family law matters. To contact Barry, call (609) 275-0400 or email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.