Rudy Coleman, a longtime Appellate Division judge and pioneer among Black lawyers, died June 23. He was 75.
Coleman was well-liked by colleagues and friends and was remembered for being respectful to attorneys and litigants and as a mentor to young Black lawyers.
Coleman was a judge in Union County Superior Court from 1995 to 2003 and served in the Appellate Division from 2003 until his retirement in 2012. He grew up in Beckley, West Virginia, where he was one of the first Black students to attend a formerly all-white high school, friends said. While attending Rutgers Law School he worked part-time at the Newark firm of Carpenter, Bennett and Morrissey. After completing law school he joined the firm full-time, and he went on to become one of the first Black lawyers to make partner in a major New Jersey firm. And in 1993, Coleman also became the first Black president at the Essex County Bar Association.
Colleagues and friends said they were aware that Coleman grew up without electricity or running water, although he didn’t dwell on his modest background.
Although he was one of only a small group of Black partners in New Jersey firms, Coleman, with his “soft-spoken persona,” always “exuded confidence, professionalism and a sense of community,” said Karol Corbin Walker, who was among the young Black lawyers who considered him a mentor. Coleman taught her about working in a law firm and about litigation technique.
“He was a brilliant man who was always willing to give of himself to young lawyers, and I am one of the beneficiaries of that,” said Corbin Walker, who is with Kaufman Dolowich Voluck in Hackensack. Coleman’s most important lesson was from “his constant desire to push oneself to a higher level, to exceed your own level of excellence—that’s what he taught me,” Corbin Walker said. “He was also a faith-filled person, a Christian, and I believe when you have that type of foundation, that allows you to overcome things, it allows you to remain hopeful and positive.”
’2 Things About Rudy’
Coleman always had a ready smile and a sense of humor, but at the same time he was a good lawyer, said Patrick Brady, who was Coleman’s colleague at Carpenter Bennett.
“Two things about Rudy: One, he was very smart. But No. 2, he was a very, very nice person, very nice demeanor, always a pleasure to be around. Somehow or another he was able to get the right balance of both,” said Brady, who is now with Epstein, Becker & Green in Newark.
Coleman enjoyed his first judicial assignment because of the frequent interaction with attorneys, but when he was elevated to the Appellate Division, he found the more “monastic” atmosphere took some adjustment, Brady said. There, “you literally had piles and piles of paper you had to go through. He told me one of the big adjustments for him was just being able to transition to being an appellate level judge and the different kind of work they do. He told me, once he got past the rite of passage, he found it pretty enjoyable, pretty challenging,” Brady said.
‘When He Spoke, People Listened’
Coleman graduated from Rutgers Law School in 1974 and was at Carpenter Bennett from 1974 to 1995. He became a Superior Court judge in 1995 and was elevated to the Appellate Division in 2003, staying there until retirement in 2012.
Coleman “was the guy that was always low key, but when he spoke, people listened,” said Richard Badolato, who knew Coleman through the Essex County Bar Association. “On the bench, he was very thoughtful, he was extremely polite to the litigants and attorneys that appeared before him. He was very smart in his rulings and he just treated everybody right,” said Badolato, who is with Walsh Pizzi O’Reilly Falanga in Newark.
Coleman “was just a wonderful person, besides being very smart and being a good bar leader and being a good lawyer as a partner and being an excellent judge,” Badolato said.
The Essex County Bar Association, in a statement, called Coleman “a shining example of professionalism and excellence. He will he fondly remembered for his integrity, superior legal intellect and pleasant demeanor on and off the bench.”