A Tribute to the Honorable William L’E Wertheimer
If it wasn’t for good forehand on the tennis court, Bill Wertheimer may never have become a distinguished trial attorney and a consummate trial judge. He had gone through Lafayette College in the early 1960’s as a member of the tennis team and an ROTC Candidate. Rather than immediately fulfilling his obligation to serve after college, he took a three year deferment to attend George Washington University School of Law. Upon graduation, he went into active duty status and was assigned to a Mechanized Infantry Division in Germany as a First Lieutenant. Some months later, he interviewed for another infantry position with the European Command Headquarters. The officer interviewing him was an inveterate tennis player, and Bill got the job so the officer could have a doubles partner. This led to a transfer stateside to Fort Dix where he was able to finally put his legal training to use, as he was assigned as Chief Trial Counsel at “Courts and Boards.” Finally, in 1968, young Lieutenant William L’Estrange Wertheimer made his courtroom debut, prosecuting a soldier for willfully disobeying a command given by a superior. Asked whether he won his first case, Bill responds, in true Wertheimer fashion: “I was a prosecutor in the military. Of course I won.” The soldier did six months in the stockade and a trial attorney was born. Interestingly, in the course of his year and a half in Courts and Boards he also came in contact with a JAG officer and future colleague, Ross Anzaldi.
Wertheimer completed his required service and was discharged in 1969, becoming a clerk in the law firm of Lum, Biunno and Tompkins. Working for the Lum firm he was quickly thrown into the “Upper Court” as it was then known, trying Products Liability, Professional Malpractice as well as the occasional plaintiff’s case. One of the largest clients was the railroad companies and it became a specialty for Bill. A tireless worker, Bill was known as a ‘work hard play hard’ guy, and quickly rose through the ranks at his law firm, eventually becoming partner in 1976.
The year 1973 was a momentous time for the nation and for Bill Wertheimer. Spiro Agnew resigned, the Watergate scandal raged, the United States Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, Billy Jean King was the best tennis player in the world, Secretariat won the Triple Crown, and Bill Wertheimer was set up on a blind date with Kate Lynch. The two fell in love and married. Nearly forty years later, they are still happily married with two grown sons, each of whom also married an Irish girl named Kate, and two adorable grandchildren. Like all grandchildren should be, they are the ‘apple of Bill’s eyes.’
Getting married and having children did not slow Bill Wertheimer down as a litigator. He was constantly in court trying cases. One day in 1984 he was trying a case in Union County when Assignment Judge William Di Buono called him into chambers. Judge Di Buono wanted to know if Bill would consider a career on the bench. There were seven vacancies, and although Wertheimer wasn’t politically active, they were trying to put together a package. After discussing it with Kate, he agreed to be considered. Some months later he was approved, and came on the bench, along with Judges John Pisansky, Jack Boyle, James Walsh, Miriam Span, Walter Barisonek, and Albert Lechner. Twenty-Seven years later, he was the last of that illustrious group to retire.
In 27 years on the bench, Judge Wertheimer served with distinction in the Civil and Criminal Divisions. He was Presiding Judge of both, and did a short stint in the Appellate Division. He was in the Appellate Division for three months, and hated it, before asking to come back. He found the Appellate Division too ‘monastic’ in his words. Truth be told, he belonged where he was always happiest, in the courtroom.
The Honorable William L’E. Wertheimer was the consummate trial judge. He was always in charge of his courtroom. Having been a trial attorney, he was now a trial attorney’s judge. He believed strongly in letting attorneys try their cases. His feeling was that there was usually a good reason why an attorney did or did not ask a question, and he wasn’t going to interfere with their trial strategy by asking his own questions. He let them do their jobs. When attorneys were arguing motions, he would probe them to find the strengths and weaknesses of their positions, but he was careful not to embarrass them. He would go out of his way to attempt to make everyone comfortable, many times by using humor. That humor was most often directed at himself. Judge Wertheimer could sometimes give an attorney the ‘business’ but he was just as happy being on the receiving end. He was big enough, man enough and Judge enough not to be offended by anything offered in a good natured way.
Perhaps the thing people know the least about Judge Wertheimer is how selfless he is. The truth is that he had his time in and could have retired years before he did this past February. However, as most readers of this article know, we are in the midst of a critical shortage of Judges here in Union County. Judge Wertheimer could have retired and started his post-retirement practice, but refused to turn his back on his Assignment Judges and his colleagues by leaving the bench shorthanded. He thus hung in there until his mandatory retirement at age 70.
Having retired, Judge Wertheimer has joined the law firm of Dughi, Hewit & Domalewski where he will focus on mediation and arbitration, and be available as a discovery master. He will also have more time to spend with his grandchildren and Kate. Alas, time has taken its toll on his right shoulder, so that magnificent forehand that spurred his career is no longer on display at the Westfield Tennis Club. Speaking for all of his colleagues as well as the many trial attorneys who had the honor of appearing before him, he is and will continue to be sorely missed.