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Susan Wigenton - United States District Judge
Susan D. Wigenton, appointed by President Bush, makes history as the
2nd African-American woman ever appointed as
U.S. District Federal Judge in New JerseyColts Neck is known for being a haven of calm in an often turbulent world, almost as though it were a relic of times gone by. It has resisted the influx of shopping malls, McDonalds, and superhighways and it maintains a peaceful, rural air. Yet the sign of a healthy community is not just how well it resists so-called “progress,” but how well it incorporates that which is positive. We certainly would not want to do without cable television, for example, much less modern vaccines.
And so it is with social change; we live in an age when many traditional values are no longer necessarily taken for granted. People of many different nations, races, and backgrounds are intermingling and sometimes intermarrying. We are finding out about one another; not only about our differences, but our similarities as well. Now we find on the cover of this issue what once would have been an anomaly for our town: in lieu of the traditional white male, we find a highly esteemed, professional African-American woman who also happens to be a federal judge.
Judge Susan D. Wigenton, who has lived with her lawyer husband and 4-year-old son Kevin in Colts Neck for 5 years, has already earned a number of extremely distinguished credits. Born in Neptune, she earned her undergraduate degree at Norfolk State University and her law degree at William and Mary College, and was admitted to the Bar Association in 1987. Subsequent to her position on the Superior Court of New Jersey as her success in a private law practice, in 2000 she became the first and only African-American to be appointed as a U.S. Magistrate Judge by the Board of Judges. To cap that honor, this year she was appointed by President Bush to the lifetime post of U.S. District Judge at the federal bench level. As such, she is only the second African-American woman so appointed in New Jersey (Ann Thompson, who still sits as a Senior Judge, was the first, 25 years ago) and one of only seven female judges ever appointed in the state.
Impressive indeed; yet if you didn’t know these facts, you wouldn’t suspect this pleasant young woman to have such a star-studded resume. She does not come off as feeling superior, different, or judgmental (pun intended). She is warm, friendly, up front, thoughtful but not critical, and intelligent but not overbearing. You would feel comfortable knocking on her door to borrow a cup of sugar, chat about the weather, or play with her charming little boy. She separates her private life from her professional, though partaking fully in both substantially different worlds, and manages to succeed admirably in each. Perhaps that is her greatest accomplishment of all.
LICN: Where did you grow up; what was your early life like?
SW: I grew up between Neptune and Middletown. I have three brothers, so my early life consisted of attending a lot of sporting events since my brothers were very active in sports, and a lot of church since my father has been a pastor since I’ve been around.
LICN: So were you involved with the church too?
SW: Yes; I’ve always been involved with the church, and I’m still involved and active in the church. It’s something that goes way back with me and my family.
LICN: Any favorite memories of your childhood?
SW: Just being a close family; always doing things with my brothers and my friends…we’re very close to this day because of it.
LICN: When did you first become acquainted with Colts Neck? What drew you here?
SW: I’ve always known about Colts Neck from growing up in Monmouth County. I always thought Colts Neck was a very pretty town.
LICN: Would you say the natural beauty is the main attraction that brought you here?
SW: It’s open. I love that and I love the greenery and the lack of congestion; it’s very attractive for me.
LICN: Is there anything you would like to see different?
SW: No, not that I’m aware of now.
LICN: I’d like to ask you if you could describe a typical day.
SW: My day starts at about 4 am when I wake up and go to the gym or stay in the house and exercise. A lot of times I do my grocery shopping around 6 or 6:30, and then I get showered, make my son’s lunch for school, then I travel to work [Newark] and then I get to court. I try to leave the courthouse no later than 5:00; then I come back, pick up my son, and come home around 6:30 or 7:00, and that’s when it’s feeding and bath time. I try to get to bed by 9:30 or 10:00 pm. Well, 9:30 doesn’t happen much!
LICN: Who were some of your role models?
SW: I would have to say one of the greatest role models has been my parents.. Both grew up picking cotton in Texas but both have gotten their college degrees; my father’s gone as far as to get his doctorate. They’ve just both always been real strong advocates of education, being your own person, and striving towards success. So they have really strongly influenced who I am and what I do.
LICN: What would you say is your greatest achievement in life to date?
SW: My greatest achievement to date is being a mother. That’s something that I find extremely challenging on a daily basis, in a good way. It challenges me to be organized, to be loving and patient, and to be committed to making sure my son has the best environment and great exposure to very positive things…that requires a lot of sacrifice on my husband’s part and my part. I do think that that’s what I’m proudest of.
LICN: Kevin is a very nice young man. How old is he?
SW: Kevin is four. He’s my little sweetheart.
LICN: Would you say that there are any specific skills from motherhood you bring to the court, or vice versa?
SW: Probably organization…I don’t do well in disorganization, so I at least try to be structured. It helps me feel better, perform better, and I apply it at home, too, in terms of how I prepare for the week.
LICN: Would you say it’s a relief to come home, a mixed blessing, or both? I imagine your job is extremely stressful but also very rewarding; can you tell us a little about that?
SW: It is a complete relief to come home; it’s like my sanctuary. Whereas most people are looking forward to going out on weekends, I can’t wait to get home. I could stay home all weekend if the little one would let me; I find that I don’t mind the work at all. It’s totally different work being a mother, a wife, and running a home, and I like the change.
LICN: Would you care to talk at all about work, as far as the stress level, stimulation level, challenge, and so forth?
SW: I think the biggest thing for me is realizing that I’m human; because I wear a robe it does not make me anything greater than that. I’m still a person, and obviously I’m subject to my own life experiences, what I’ve been exposed to. I have to always consider that when I’m dealing with cases where it’s civil, and especially when it’s criminal. Just trying to put yourself in the shoes of a defendant and understanding their minds somehow, especially when you’re dealing with addiction and not having the ability to personally relate,…just trying to have some compassion that there’s an outside force controlling whatthey do a lot of times.
LICN: It can be viewed as a disease.
SW: Exactly…and when we look at what people have given up, what they have lost as a result of it, you realize that that’s not their choice. That is something that they’ve really had no control over.
LICN: Do you sometimes find that people are surprised when they first meet you to find out how approachable and down-to earth you are, not at all what they might have expected? There’s an image of a judge as being intimidating, austere, or standoffish and you’re not like that at all.
SW: Shocked. People are shocked to find out what I do. I rarely tell people what I do. In fact, my standard answer when people ask what I do is that I work for the court, because people do have expectations of who you “should” be as a judge, how you “should” act as a judge, and I am completely the opposite. And I’m fine with that. I like that, because it allows me to be a regular person in most situations. But people are really very surprised, given my age, given my personality, and they automatically think that I’m someone different when I’m on the bench,and I’m not.
LICN: So you’re just who you are.
SW: Yes; it’s just who I am…and it’s why I’ve gotten to where I am, so I wouldn’t deny that and deny being myself.
LICN: Do you find it difficult to “shift gears” from work to being a wife, mother, etc.?
SW: I don’t notice it if it is. I think I’ve been so fortunate because of my upbringing and my parents. I don’t have any issues with “I’m Judge Wigenton at this time of the day and now I have to be someone else”; the flow for me is very smooth. And it’s the same thing in dealing with people, too. I don’t have to forget “oh, I’m not a judge here”; I probably have to remind myself more that I am as opposed to that I’m not a judge.
LICN: What would you like us to know about you not as a judge but just as a person, as a neighbor?
SW: I would say I like to have fun, I love to laugh, and I love people. More than anything else, I love people that are sincere and genuine, and I love to be around them. And I try to be that as well.
LICN: It comes across.
SW: That’s who I really try to be because I don’t like the pompousness and the lack of sincerity; it really bothers me.
LICN: If you weren’t a judge, what do you think you’d be doing?
SW: I would probably do some acting or music, maybe even be a doctor.
LICN: How do you like to relax? Do you have any hobbies?
SW: I love music, I love movies, and my idea of relaxing would probably be to go to a spa. If I can’t get to a spa I would probably go to the movies by myself, in the middle of the afternoon, with a bucket of popcorn. I sing a lot at church, and that’s one of the things that I find relaxing, so I relax a lot throughmusic.
LICN: Mostly church music, or all kinds of music?
SW: I love all kinds of music, but I tend to sing more church music because I tend to sing in church…I would love to sing in a small band or something twice a year… [laughs].
LICN: Would you like your son to follow you in your footsteps?
SW: I’ve not given it any thought, in all honesty. I just really want him to be the best that he can be; hopefully, that is doing something that he can find happiness in, and success. If you can match the two up that’s a wonderful thing. But now I can’t say; both my husband and I are in law and it certainly creates a bond for us to discuss it and understand each other, but for him…he seems extremely technical, with wires and engineering sort of things, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t go into law, but he’s already learned the word “client” [laughs] – “You’re talking to a client?!”
LICN: In the last few years, New Jersey has become sort of infamous nationally – fairly or not – due to “The Sopranos.” We’re kind of stuck with an image through that. In your experience, is there much truth reflected by that, or do you think it’s a fair way to judge New Jersey?
SW: It’s probably not a fair way to judge the entire state…I happen to love the show for, I guess, the theatrical element of it…You certainly have “wise guys” in the system, but I don’t think it’s a fair characterization of the entire state.
LICN: I know there’s a lot of confidentiality in your work. Is it tough sometimes to keep a lot of stuff in?
SW: It is. There are things that I see and you want to comment on it, but you realize that you cannot.
LICN: Am I right to assume that you can’t talk about certain things, even with your husband?
SW: Exactly, and I think because I’ve been doing it awhile I’ve almost gotten used to that. What you do see is that a lot of times it eventually comes out anyway…you know, “I couldn’t tell you, but I saw it coming down the pike…”
LICN: As far as being a judge, do you try to continue established traditions, create your own interpretation, or a little of each?
SW: There are case precedents that you have to follow. I try to temper everything to the facts of the particular case, but you cannot ignore the law that exists, because it’s a sure way to be reversed, and that’s not what we’re looking to get.
LICN: At the end of your career, what would you like to leave as your legacy?
SW: I would like for people to say that “she was fair, she was open, and that she truly cared about the cases that came before her.” If I had that as my legacy I would feel that I had a successful career on the bench.
LICN: Now, that’s work-related; how about just as a person? How would you like to be remembered as a human being?
SW: I would say I’d like to be remembered as a woman of my word; that when I say something to you, you can count on it, you can believe it, and you can know that if I say I’m going to do something I will do it.
LICN: You are certainly a good role model for many young women today, especially (but not necessarily only) women of color. Have you been asked to speak at schools or other organizations? If so, what kind of message do you bring to such meetings?
SW: I’ve spoken at so many schools and so many churches and various organizations, and I love to speak to young people and also to women. I try to bring a message of hope and inspiration when I speak to various groups; I think the message–and it sounds cliché–is that you can truly do and be anything you want to be. A lot of times, especially in the African-American community, we don’t see people who have that objective – certainly you don’t see them to the extent that you can talk to them and reach out and touch them–so to go to a school and to just be there and be able to answer any questions is just so rewarding, and there are so many different occasions when I’ve left and heard “I want to be a judge too.” I never wanted to be a judge; I never even knew of the option of being a judge when I was younger; so, if for nothing else, I think it leaves people with a real ray of hope that it can be done, it is an option, and just keep striving. It goes not only for young kids, but women in law school.
LICN: Do you find it hard to separate politics from the law?
SW: Not at all. I think politics always exists, but I don’t have any problem in separating the two.
LICN: What do you see as some of the most critical issues confronting us: locally, nationally, internationally?
SW: I would say – certainly nationally – drugs. The sale and use of drugs, gang violence – and they almost are intertwined with each other – guns and that sort of thing. It’s a real issue and one that I think many people are struggling with because it’s very difficult to deal with.
LICN: We seem to be shielded from that locally.
SW: We certainly don’t have gang violence and that, especially when you go to the urban areas, is just extremely prevalent and just out of control. We’re in a cocoon.
LICN: What do you envision for the future of our community? Is there anything you’re looking forward to or concerned about?
SW: I’m looking forward to the open reception of people of all ethnicities; that’s one of the things that I like about this area; that it does have some real diversity, and I think that’s important. It’s important because we all learn from each other, and we all benefit from each other. If we think we don’t, we’ve already lost.
LICN: Do you have any plans to go into politics?
SW: None. I have no reason to leave the bench, and I certainly have no interest or intention of ever pursuing politics.
LICN: As a hypothetical question, if you did, is there anything particular you would try to accomplish?
SW: I don’t know…I think we could all say “I would like to do this and that,” but truthfully, trying to implement changes and really effectuate them is not as easy. I can talk about world peace, but I tend to think in the real instead of the abstract.
LICN: What would you say is your biggest challenge?
SW: Time. Having time to do all the things…time to spend with my family, time to do the work that I feel that I have to do at my office; that’s the biggest challenge…finding enough time to feel like I’ve done all the things I need to do.
Buona Sera in Red Bank
Favorite Musical Artist
Biggest Pet Peeve
Three people who I would like to dine with
Photo GalleryClick here for Slideshow. You can also click on any of the photos to start slideshow.
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