Paul Vichness ’65, a Superior Court judge in Essex County, N.J., is retiring from a 40-year legal career at the end of March. In his tenure, he has handled his fair share of what would be considered routine or standard legal cases, but has also presided over some of the county’s more unique cases. An article in the Star-Ledger describes a death threat Vichness received during a 2004 murder trial in which the defendant was a member of the Bloods gang.
Vichness recalled the incident, “I took my wife out for Valentine’s Day that year with a State Police cruiser parked outside of the restaurant. It’s one of the many things we’ve taken in stride.”
The article notes Vichness’ judicial career was “marked by high-profile cases, including the trial in 2000 of an Irvington voodoo priest who severely burned a Haitian pop singer during a religious ceremony,” as well as presiding over the first prosecution under New Jersey’s bias-murder statute, when a 15-year-old lesbian was stabbed to death in downtown Newark.
Vichness earned a B.A. in history from Hobart College. While a student, he was a member of the pre-law society, the debate team, a cheerleader and worked at WEOS.
The full article about his retirement follows.
Death threats, voodoo priests and murder: Big-case judge retiring after 40-year legal career
Julia Terruso • The Star-Ledger • February 24, 2013
As he sat in his chambers a few days into a February 2004 murder trial, Judge Paul Vichness, a veteran jurist with a disarming smile, heard the phone ring.
“You’re trying to kill one of ours. We’re going to kill you and three of your jurors,” the anonymous caller said.
The defendant on trial, Horace McClain, was a reputed Bloods gang member facing the death penalty in the last capital punishment case to be heard in New Jersey.
Following the death threats, the jurors were moved to a hotel – told they were being sequestered to avoid publicity – and Vichness was placed under 24-hour watch.
“I took my wife out for Valentine’s Day that year with a State Police cruiser parked outside of the restaurant,” Vichness said in his chambers last week. “It’s one of the many things we’ve taken in stride.”
In a 40-year legal career, including nearly two decades as a judge, Vichness, 68, has handled some of Essex County’s more memorable and turbulent cases. Now, after 18 law clerks – all of whom, he boasts, have found jobs – countless motions and mentees, Vichness is hanging up his robes March 29.
Vichness sat in criminal, family, civil and drug court. But things have changed a lot since he ascended to the bench in 1995, namely 17 judicial vacancies and a mounting workload, partly prompting his retirement.
“I work until 11 p.m. every night,” Vichness said. “I’m one of these crazy people who, to me, the worst thing in the world would be to not be prepared. It’s the way I was brought up, but it takes a toll.”
Born in the Bronx, Vichness moved to Verona in the fourth grade. His father, Irving, was a municipal court judge who sparked his interest in law.
At Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York, Vichness studied history, a passion evident in his collection of historic Newark photographs and presidential signatures. He’s amassed 40 of the signatures so far, needing only those of presidents Obama, Kennedy, Tyler and Washington to complete the set.
It was during his sophomore year at Hobart when Vichness met his future wife, Sharlene.
“I came out of the bookstore loaded down with books, and there he was waiting outside,” Sharlene Vichness said. “He said, ‘Can I help carry them to your dorm?’ I thought, well, chivalry is not dead. And we went together all through school.”
And for 41 years after that.
“I’ve met a lot of lawyers who felt trapped,” Sharlene Vichness said. “Paul, on the other hand, really loves what he does, and I think that’s what really makes him good. He’s always felt most people only go to court once in their life. It’s the only time someone touches the judicial system, and he didn’t want them to be left with a lousy impression of it.”
Vichness graduated from Seton Hall Law School and worked as a public defender before joining the Fairfield firm of Lorber, Schneider, Nuzzi, Vichness & Bilinkas. There, he became the expert on all matters civil, said his former partner, Ed Bilinkas.
“He’s a brilliant legal mind,” Bilinkas said. “I couldn’t even understand the stuff that he was dealing with. But coming from the public defender’s office, he also had this terrific background in criminal law.”
Vichness put that acumen and experience to good use during a judicial career marked by high-profile cases, including the trial in 2000 of an Irvington voodoo priest who severely burned a Haitian pop singer during a religious ceremony.
Five years later, after a 15-year-old lesbian was stabbed to death in downtown Newark, Vichness presided over the first prosecution under New Jersey’s bias-murder statute.
And earlier this month, he refereed from the bench during another big trial as families of the victims in the 2007 Newark schoolyard shootings sued the school district and the state. The two sides settled for $5 million mid-trial.
To Essex County Civil Division Assignment Judge Dennis Carey, Vichness has been more than a top-notch jurist. He’s also been a resource, a go-to counselor for new litigants and judges, Carey said.
“He’s always willing to put in the extra work and leaves behind a tremendous legacy of collegiality,” said Carey, who’s been in Essex County for a decade. “When I started, I’d turn to him for advice, and he has a warmth and friendliness that we will miss.”
Looking forward, Vichness says he’ll do mediation work and hopes to take some time to travel.
As he sat in his chambers – decorated with photos of family, Giants memorabilia and courtroom-themed artwork from as far as Egypt – a large plastic recycling cart stood by his desk waiting to be filled.
The advice he’d give, looking back, is simple.
“I’d say be good to one another. Everybody’s gotta help the next guy or woman. There’s no reason to be nasty or uppity in this world when you can be calm,” Vichness said, “and civil.”