Saturday, September 30, 2023

Judges Honored Reflect Diversity in Courts

Christopher South
Retired Superior Court Judge James Jackson gets his first glimpse of his official portrait in the Hall of Judges at the Cape May County Superior Courthouse, Aug. 30. Jackson and three other retired judges were so honored for their efforts at bringing diversity to the courts.

By Christopher South

COURT HOUSE – The Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement Committee (DICE) honored five Superior Court judges, who promoted the principles outlined in the committee’s name, with a portrait unveiling in the Cape May County Superior Courthouse, Aug. 30.

The judges being honored, all from Vicinage 1 – Atlantic and Cape May counties, included Dennis J. Braithwaite, who served from 1984 to 2005, Valerie H. Armstrong (1991-2011), James L. Jackson (1998-2014), Susan F. Maven (2001-2022), and Julio L. Mendez (2002-2022).

Superior Court Assignment Judge Michael Blee introduced the honorees and speakers and thanked DICE for organizing the event. Blee said the committee was organized to bring diversity and inclusion into the courthouse, saying, “A lot of different flowers make a bouquet.”

“Diversity in the judiciary creates a better system of justice,” Blee said.

Blee recalled a time when every Superior Court judge was a white male.

“Vicinage 1 now has a diverse bench, but we are not where we want to be,” he said.

He said there has been a national effort to remove discrimination from the judiciary, adding that diversity has been a very important initiative of New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. He added that DICE also has an important role in that its members make recommendations to the assignment judge.

“The committee assesses courts and how they treat the people who walk in the door,” Blee said.

Portraits of five retired Superior Court judges wait to be unveiled, Aug. 30, during the dedication of the Hall of Judges at Cape May County Superior Court. Photo Credit: Christopher South

Blee introduced the first speaker, DICE Chairman Judge Rodney Cunningham. Cunningham talked about those who came before him to instill the DICE principles in the courts, saying, “They did yeoman’s work to blaze trails before me,” adding that they had inspired so many members of DICE. He said the purpose of the committee, and one of the effects on Vicinage 1, was strengthening the community.

“We wouldn’t be where we are without them,” he said. “We will continue the work you started.”

Madeline Williams, the senior probation officer in the Superior Court Family Division, said she was inspired by the Homeland Security suggestion that “if you see something, say something.”

She said she became aware that when she walked the halls of the courts, she saw nothing but men in the roles of judges. She decided to take a stand for diversity – something she said her mother instilled in all her siblings, as well. Williams worked for Judge Dennis Braithwaite, who she said had 75 published opinions and was a part of 100 more.

Lois Braithwaite, the judge’s widow, spoke about her husband’s career and his passion for mentoring young law clerks, including his first law clerk, who, as a sitting judge in New York, spoke at the judge’s funeral.

Dennis Braithwaite hired James Jackson, who was another honoree at the Aug. 30 event. Lois Braithwaite said her husband created a system of nurturing young people in their individual pursuits, adding that he was also approached by numerous community groups to give inspirational speeches.

Lois Braithwaite, the widow of Superior Court Judge Dennis Braithwaite, spoke about her husband on the occasion of his portrait being added to the Hall of Judges, Aug. 30, in Court House. She said her husband inspired and mentored many young professionals. Photo Credit: Christopher South

Former trial court administrator Howard Bechtold delivered remarks about retired Judge Valerie Armstrong, who is now living in North Carolina and enjoying playing music.

Armstrong began her career as a music teacher and was inspired by her attorney husband to go to law school. Bechtold said Armstrong was the first female assignment judge, and she worked to ensure there was a diverse bench and workforce in the court. He said she used to say, “When people walk into the courthouse, they need to see someone who looks like them.”

“She was so committed to the goal,” Bechtold added.

Former Family Division manager Florine Alexander delivered remarks about retired Judge James Jackson. She talked about the quiet, calm demeanor and respect projected by Jackson in the Family Division, which she said was important because “people are not coming to Family Court because it is fun.”

Alexander said Jackson brought that same calm demeanor to the Juvenile Division and helped create a better system of justice there.

“A number of changes in the juvenile system were due to his input,” she said.

Jackson, who was one of the judges in attendance, Aug. 30, said he was truly honored to serve as a Superior Court judge.

Current Superior Court Assignment Judge Michael Blee acted as the master of ceremonies, Aug. 30, at a ceremony honoring judges who contributed to diversity and inclusion in the courthouse. Photo Credit: Christopher South

Also being honored with an official portrait in the Hall of Judges on the second floor of the courthouse were Judges Susan F. Maven and Julio L. Mendez, who both retired in 2022.

Maven, who was present to make her own remarks, served in the Family Division three separate times, as well as in the Criminal and Appellate divisions.

Mendez, who was honored on the occasion by Louis J. Belasco, served in the Criminal Division and as the presiding judge in the Family Division before serving as the assignment judge from 2011 until his retirement in 2022.

The day’s events concluded with the dedication of the hall, as well as the unveiling of the portraits of the honorees.

Contact the author, Christopher South, at or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.


Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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